If Ronda Rousey was your introduction into the world of MMA, don't expect it to be your last.
At least that's the feeling at the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where the burgeoning strategy is to attract more fans, more consumers and more marketing partners both domestically and worldwide, all while developing and supporting more athletes with better skills and, according to plan, more marketability.
UFC was formed in 1993 as a pro mixed martial arts group, but in 2001 was acquired by Frank Fertitta III, his brother Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White for about $2 million. UFC, under the corporate auspices of Zuffa LLC, now produces more than 40 live events annually and is broadcast via PPV and TV, including Fox, in more than 129 countries and territories in 28 different languages.
Although the UFC has had its share of champions, it arguably is the rise of Rousey that drove awareness beyond core fans to casual fans and non-endemic brands and consumers. UFC's nucleus of partners currently includes Anheuser-Busch, Reebok, Toyo Tires, EA Sports and Topps.
Rousey has a roster of marketing partners that includes Reebok, Monster Energy, Carl’s Jr., Snail Games, Buffalo Clothing and Monster headphones. She has some two million followers on Twitter, 10 million likes on Facebook. She has done movies and plans to do more.
"The fact that in December people are talking about a (potential) rematch in July between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm (who in November beat the previously undefeated Rousey for the UFC Bantamweight title) shows in part how far we have come," said Garry Cook, chief global brand officer for UFC. "We are seeing more casual fans, more people who did not follow us at all and more women coming in."
On the men's side, among the UFC's top stars are Anthony Johnson, Michael Bisping, Victor Belfort, Jon Jones and Conor McGregor (who earlier this month needed just 13 seconds to knock put José Aldo to claim the featherweight crown).
Cook, who has been with UFC since 2012, previously held executive positions with Nike and Manchester City, so he is well aware of working with and building a brand that must think global in order to grow.
"Brands and businesses don't make decisions — people do," said Cook. "I learned that from Phil Knight (Nike co-founder and chairman). He said he would rather sit in a room with ten 'average' people who come up with one genius idea than one genius trying to tell the other nine about his idea. I love that. It's a principle by which I live and work."
UFC has been in the process of growing beyond the octagon where the fights actually take place into UFC Gyms, clothing — boosted by its alliance with Reebok — multi-media and other outlets. The UFC recently broke ground on a planned 184,000-square-foot facility in its Las Vegas hometown that will be anchored by a UFC Athlete Health and Performance Center.
"The next stage for us is to become a better company and a brand long-term worldwide,” said Cook. "We want to be on a playing field and a sports landscape with the NFL, MLB, NBA, the Premier League."
There also is a fight, in the courts, to persuade officials to sanction UFC and MMA pro fights in New York, which is the only U.S. state where the sport is not legal and regulated.
"One of the challenges we have is that the days of slapping a logo on the canvas and hoping to create awareness and sales is gone," said Cook. "We have to change our cultural mentality and move to more of an engagement platform. You have to find ways to engage with companies to help them sell their product. It's not just about the logo. It's about engaging the fan and consumer.”
UFC’s rising popularity comes at a time when boxing is struggling to regain the glory it had in the days of Ali, Leonard, Foreman, Frazier and Holmes. The main difference between the two, many feel, is that UFC delivers big fights when people — and marketers — want to see them and boxing does not.
“We have filled in all the gaps that boxing fans wanted,” said Cook. “We have a centralized world title process. We have a brand, so you can access other elements. And it doesn't take seven years to put a fight together, as it did with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. We do it every week. It is quite a compelling model.”