Make no mistake that the UFC is still a dominant and evolving global brand in sport, especially in key younger male demos that crave action and engagement. The biggest crowd ever to see the promotion, over 54,000, filled Etihad Stadium in Melbourne Saturday night to see the sport’s biggest crossover star Ronda Rousey, meet American boxer Holly Holm. Take the opponent out quickly and move on, is what was expected for the former Olympic judo champion, just like she has done before. What the crowd and the UFC got was headlines, shock, a new rivalry and a new champion, as Holm knocked Rousey out in the second round. Disaster for the brand equity of an undefeated champion? Maybe, but in reality a loss might be the best thing the UFC could have gotten.
Like all mature brands, there is a tendency from time to time to get caught in a routine of success without looking for more innovation or testing new boundaries. 54k showing up in Oz is a great example of if things aren’t broke, don’t fix them. However a story even as fresh as Rousey’s, can get stale for casual followers over time. A hot new book, a controversy with a coach, innuendo here and there, a movie career are all great for her brand, but sometimes undefeated can get a bit boring. As the late Jay Larkin used to say, the best brands are driven by competition, you always need an Avis for your Hertz. We also love the comeback trail and the new story line, and that all happened this weekend for the UFC in Melbourne.
Now thankfully for the UFC their anxious followers won’t let them the sport sit tight for very long, and if they do sit tight their followers can migrate to other things to keep them engaged (we continue to see first adopters moving to eSports and getting all excited about Daily Fantasy in the U.S.), so the need not just for new ways to activate, but to also have new faces emerge is really important to keeping story lines, rivalries and the business flow fresh. That’s why “The Ultimate Fighter” still remains a key strategic point, and it’s why a surprise title is important for the brand going forward.
One of the inherent problems with marketing MMA is its unpredictability. Over the years, promotions have invested huge efforts into building a star, only to have someone come along with an expertise in one of the disciplines to unhinge the champion. That parity is something few sports have to deal with all the time…the ATP is probably a close second for not having predictable long term star power…so the UFC investment in recent years has been on veterans and the careful matchmaking of rising stars.
Only a few years ago legend Anderson 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 was 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. Did he resonate with casual fans, especially with partners like Fox ? Not so much. His loss to Chris Weidman helped re-engage American fans, thrust wrestling (Weidman was an accomplished college wrestler) back into the conversation and gave the UFC new storylines they needed at that point. Same thing here, only probably to a bigger level because of Rousey’s mega-stardom away from The Octagon.
So now you have a new belt holder in Holm. A boxing champion, her win will again raise the discussion of “boxers can beat MMA stars” which has gone on for years, and will probably help lift boxers back into the spotlight, both male and female. Can, in an Olympic year, boxing take advantage of the spotlight for a new UFC titleholder as well by talking about crossover appeal? It certainly would be smart to do. She has a strong but not over the top personality, which will resonate with mainstream MMA fans. She is American, so there is a tie to marketing in and around the heart of the UFC business, which will be an added perk for a brand like Reebok, now heavily invested in the space.
Add on her surprising KO of not just a champion but a marketing star, and the build that the UFC can now do with a rematch, and Holm is a great fit to help the UFC re-engage and move forward yet again. Fans love a little controversy, they love undefeated (she is), and they love the hype of the rematch. Their new titleholder fits all those things.
For sure there is probably a little long term equity risk in investing in Holm for some brands looking for long term planning. But for the short term it is all good news for the UFC, a brand which is rock solid but always in need to find what’s next in the marketplace.