It was a night that maybe in other years would have sent the UFC leadership scurrying for new spin. There was their vaunted former champion, Anderson Silva, screaming with a horrific broken leg; night over, maybe career over. It comes just a few weeks after another of the promotion’s biggest stars, Georges St. Pierre, announced his unexpected retirement. In a business where pay per view is a life blood those two names disappearing could be really tough to overcome.
However this is the UFC of 2013-14, and the results from a Saturday night card give more insight into what the future may be than the past. First you have Ronda Rousey, the promotion’s marketing darling with Danica Patrick-like drawing power (and unlike Patrick, results to back it up), not just winning, but winning a match that went longer than expected (giving hope that women’s MMA for those who like it, is becoming deeper) and immediately announcing her next match against a former Olympic wrestler, Sara McMann, already fueling hype, sales and probably an even broader audience.
Then you have the defending champion, somewhat of a surprise, in Chris Weidman, now having beaten Silva twice, and if you are the UFC looking at an American audience you have to be somewhat pleased with the marketing potential of a college educated, well spoken, community-oriented star from the one market you still cannot compete in; New York.
There is no doubt that as a worldwide property the UFC is still a dominant and evolving brand, especially in key younger male demos that crave action and engagement. They have continued to look globally for more dollars and engagement, and they saw that success in 2013. In the U.S. however, the brand has hot a bit of a stagnation point, and new stars, new stories, and some new controversies are what was needed, and the end of 2013 seems to have provided all. The promotion’s deal with Fox Sports has steadily grown but has not really provided the mega-brand push that some had predicted right away, however the wall to wall coverage Saturday that ESPN provided to augment the Fox coverage again showed how much star power UFC has now and will continue to develop with its new stars on the rise.
Silva was an established star with huge credibility in the MMA world but not mega-marketing potential in the mainstream in the U.S. Polished and effective, Silva is a great fighter, but not someone who could be loved by English-speaking Madison Avenue. He also lacked a great deal of edge or controversy that some other mainstream brands could gravitate to. Was he a successful ambassador for the sport in emerging countries? Absolutely. Does he resonate with casual fans? Not so much and that’s maybe where Weidman now steps in more, along with established names and personalities like Rashard Evans.
So now you have a solid belt holder in Weidman. A former college wrestler with a passion to help that sport grow gives him added gravitas. He has a strong but not over the top personality, which will resonate with mainstream MMA fans. He is New York born, bred and educated, so there is a tie to marketing in and around big business. Add on his two surprising wins over a legendary champion, and the build that the UFC can now do around him for 2014 and marketers should breathe a little easier about engaging with the promotion, and maybe even enhancing their investment with such a mature and social savvy company like UFC in the USA.
By the way on the marketing side, how savvy is Rousey? Less than four hour s after her title defense she was on twitter plugging one of her sponsors, Metro-PCS, in a contest giveaway. Of course it was planned in advance, but many an athlete would take a step back rather than attack after any kind of performance, and the beauty of social media made the MMA star a business star yet again.
The business of MMA, be it UFC or even its best competitor in Bellator, still has its issues with violence which do not make it a fit for many. However for an audience that craves action and engagement UFC is again proving that it has taken a punch and is even stronger on its feet than before, and in its home country having marketable American stars going into a new year is a great help.