Say what you want about the “growth” of Mixed Martial Arts, the real brand in the sport, the experiential one, is the UFC. Bellator has done well taking the playbook that the UFC and Spike TV co-created and running with it, but the only true global business that has been successful in the sport has been the UFC, with its combination of now FOX and a host of regional platforms feeding its pay per view model, ala the WWE. Many challengers have come and gone, and the UFC as a business continues to dwarf all competitors.
Even with its success and buzz, the UFC has yet to crack into legality in New York. Ronda Rousey can do Saturday Night Live, and the UFC can bring its pre-fight caravan into New York before Saturday’s card at The Prudential Center; they can even announce an April 23 mega-card at Madison Square Garden with its rising star Connor McGregor, but so far the ability to stage an event in The Empire State is still met with silence.
While successful events pop up in Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal and New Jersey, the state of New York goes on about its business without a live MMA card to speak of. While many in and out may argue that the UFC does not need New York to be successful and get to another level of branding that is up for debate. What is true for any sport to attract mega-dollars and entertain the brands that could engage in it (along with the media and the casual high new worth fan) you need a New York presence. It is not a Newark presence or a Mohegan Sun presence or an Atlantic City presence, no matter how close they are. You need a spot, at least once a year, to be in the bright lights of New York. It is why tennis has the dollars it gets…two weeks a year media buyers can plan to bring clients to see and experience the sport. It is one of the reasons why NASCAR for all its success still hasn’t 100 pct. cracked through with brands and fans (no track in New York), and it is the reason why execs at Madison Square Garden continue to stand with UFC head Dana White to formally rally for legalization. The business has done amazingly well, but brands are still skittish on many levels, and for it to be at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” makes the sport just that much more legit. Yes it is perception, but for many on the buy side it is also reality.
This is not to say that the UFC can’t thrive without New York events and legalization. The brand is doing just fine thank you, especially with a global presence. Rousey’s loss hasn’t really slowed the sport, and McGregor’s emergence has helped to again lift the UFC playbook. It is also not to say that New York needs legal MMA to fill arenas and jobs, as we are talking probably two events at max, in opposite ends of the state, in any calendar year. It is important for perception, for those casual dollars that may go to a movie instead of a pay per view, or for that brand manager who would like to spend on UFC but can’t because his boss won’t go to Vegas or even to Newark to see the UFC experience. He or she will go to MSG however, just like he will go out to Flushing Meadows to see tennis, but he won’t go to Wimbledon or even New Haven for an event. As global as sports is, it is still very very local, and no more local than in the cradle of advertising and brand activation that sits in Manhattan.
There is also no legit reason for MMA not to be legal in New York. Every hurdle and issue (outside of the obvious violence) has been addressed, and the business model for controlled brand success has been proven time and time again. While it should not be a priority in the state Capitol in Albany, it should be a no brainer on a list of things to do. It is a good time to move forward and give the business people in the sport a chance to achieve larger scale success with a New York boost. It has been earned and it makes good sense now, no matter what one thinks of the sport from the past.