In 2002, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was on the edge of bankruptcy: American fans hadn’t flocked to the new sport as expected, and more than 30 states had banned the intensely physical fighting competition.
Today, the UFC presents the largest pay-per-view event in the world, broadcasts in 28 languages and often generates more than 5 billion Twitter and Facebook impressions per night in the lead-up to major fights. So how did a once-unpopular sport with few supporters manage to rise to the top?
From Flyweight to Heavyweight
UFC fighters don’t wear much protection — no elbow pads, shin guards or goggles. But the league has honed a virtual brass knuckle by intelligently leveraging technology to court fans and encourage fighter/fan connections; in effect, the league learned to punch above its weight.
Much of the credit for this technology focus goes to UFC president Dana White, who bought the organization for $2 million in 2002. White decided the league’s biggest challenge in marketing to the coveted 18–35 male demographic was speaking their language — in other words, the UFC had to get online.
It started with things like White’s video blog, which the outspoken (and brutally honest) president posts before each major event. The league has gone further, however, by partnering with reputable web hosting providers and developing a premium YouTube channel called UFC Select. For $5.99 per month, fans get access to live fights and other exclusive programming streamed directly to the device of their choice, without the need for a cable-company subscription. White and the league seem to be on the right track; as a recent Business Insider article notes, 2013 was the worst-ever year for traditional cable providers.
Knocking Out a Social Strategy
But to achieve exponential growth — the UFC is now valued at nearly $2 billion — aligning the league with Internet-based technologies wasn’t enough. Connection with fans was paramount, which meant getting social and going mobile. White’s Twitter account, for example, has more than 2 million followers, and in 2011 he announced bonus payments of up to $240,000 for fighters who effectively engage fans via social media.
On the mobile-device side, the league created its UFC TV app, letting users watch events live from multiple camera angles, purchase past events and stream press conferences and weigh-ins for free. September 2013 brought the release of the UFC Fans app, which includes “Fight Rhythm,” a feature that lets fans see who’s in control of a match moment-by-moment. Perhaps more importantly for the brand, the app comes with a photo-taking feature that not only encourages fighter/fan selfies but also allows fighters to digitally “sign” the finished product, which fans can then post to Twitter or Facebook.
Engagement and ease are the league’s guiding principles: Make fans care about fighters by providing solid, ongoing engagement, and make it easy for fans to get the content they want, when they want it.
UFC Goes Global
In the last few years, the UFC has started to stretch its legs and go global. The league has already partnered with broadcast giants like Latin America’s Televisa and has plans in Africa to skip fragmented TV providers and instead stream directly to mobile devices.
While the UFC occupies a unique place in American sports, its business model offers broadly applicable lessons. Just like a fighter in the Octagon, the league goes all out, fully committing itself to supporting web-based viewers, mobile users and social followers alike. Timidity has no place in White’s league, and its exponential growth proves the point: Technology packs a one-two punch.
[image: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images Sport/ThinkStockPhotos]