THE ULTIMATE FIGHTING CHAMPIONSHIP IS BRINGING ITS HEADY MIX OF VIOLENCE TO ASIA IN A BIG WAY, WITH MACAU SET TO PLAY A MAJOR ROLE.
It’s early afternoon on Saturday 10 November and thousands of blood-thirsty males have stormed the Shun Tak Centre in Hong Kong to board any ferry heading towards Macau.
We arrive at the Cotai Arena just hours before the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first official fight in China and the atmosphere is electric, to say the least.
Some of UFC’s biggest names from Jung Chan-Sung, known as the Korean Zombie, to Chuck Liddell and Vietnam’s Cung Le, are casually making their way around The Venetian posing for photos and signing autographs.
This was a big moment for UFC Asia, the rapidly growing arm of the global sports franchise that is betting big on Asia expansion.
In 2012 alone, UFC saw spectacular growth right across the region from the Philippines and South Korea – currently its two biggest markets – to Singapore, Malaysia and, increasingly, Greater China.
The organisation sold out its two key events in Japan and Macau and is on the peak of expanding into a suite of UFC-branded gyms, retail stores, sports equipment and fighter development programmes.
Globally, MMA is said to be the world’s fastest-growing sport and some estimate the value of UFC brand at US$3 billion. Its top fighters such as the 31-year old Canadian Georges “Rush” St-Pierre are demanding multi-million checks for headline bouts.
But the picture wasn’t always this rosy.
Only 11 years ago UFC was an organisation heading towards bankruptcy alongside a sport that to many was violent, underground and misunderstood.
In the early 1990s Senator John McCain described mixed martial arts as “human cockfighting” and petitioned governors of all 50 US states to ban UFC events, of which 36, including New York, enacted on the eve of UFC 12.
But a US$2 million buyout from casino brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and big changes to MMA rules such as outlawing eye gouging and biting, toned down McCain’s criticism and millions of fans worldwide have enthusiastically embraced the sport.
Now the UFC is looking to draw marketers into its grand vision. And, so far it is working.
A growing number of global brands from Energizer, Sony, Harley-Davidson and Budweiser have thrown their support behind UFC and MMA in general, hoping to capture an audience of mostly young, upwardly mobile, white-collar males.
Mark Fischer talks about this turnaround almost as a second coming for the UFC.
In August 2010, UFC tapped Fischer, a former NBA Asia executive, as executive vice-president and managing director for UFC Asia.
From his base in Beijing, he oversees everything from promoting the UFC brand to broadcast rights, public relations, event management and soon a grassroots development programme and merchandising opportunities across the region.
“It’s amazing how the sport has taken off,” he says. “I can’t tell if it is the establishment of UFC Asia that helped spark it, or whether it is just coincidental. I would like to think it’s a little of both.”
And while this cocktail of boxing, Jeet Kune Do, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai is proving a hit with young males (and increasingly females), Fischer does admit there are challenges to overcome.
“A lot of people when they first see it don’t know what to make of it. It can be a bit shocking to the uninitiated.”
But he stresses very little harm is actually done.
“We do need to educate people about the sport so they see past the initial impression, which obviously looks aggressive and edgy, and appreciate all the finer points.
“When people understand that they really get into it.”
So, naturally, education is a core part of the UFC strategy and the company employs basic programmes to raise awareness of the sport and, in a sense, soften the blow.
To date, social media has been one of its stronger points and engagement with fans on Facebook and Twitter is now second only to the NBA.
On Facebook UFC boasts more than 9.7 million likes, but its hugely active presence on Twitter is where the fighters and the UFC shine.
The big bulk of UFC’s 400-plus fighters have official Twitter accounts and in China, Cung Le has some 600,000 followers on Weibo.
Fischer says this is an intentional part of its strategy, which ironically started out unintentionally.
“Before we were able to move a bit closer to the mainstream, as we have in the last few years, UFC was underground,” he says.
“One of the ways of getting it out and building a fan base was through the internet, but that tradition has expanded and has become a lot more sophisticated.
“One positive characteristic of our fan outreach programme is how accessible our fighters are. We encourage them and make it clear that part of their job is to be accessible to fans who are so passionate about this sport.”
So where is all this heading?
Fischer says building UFC into a truly global platform, one which marketers can access, will soon become a reality.
“I think we will have a vehicle they can’t ignore when making marketing choices, partly because we do attract a very upscale audience,” he says.
“They realise UFC is coming in with a fresh start, with a global brand that is on its way up and people are responding to it very well.”
Despite this, it’s clear the UFC is committed to its loyal fan base and becoming mainstream is not on the agenda.
“I don’t know if we ever want to be mainstream. We’re not marketing to families and we are not marketing to under 18s. We’re cool and guys are fascinated by who the baddest guys on the planet are.”