When UFC was sold to WME | IMG, Dana White, along with his partners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, drove away in the proverbial Brink’s truck. White’s take from the sale was reported to be $340 million.
The extraordinary growth in valuation of a business once banned across most of the U.S. is the stuff of Harvard Business School case studies. White and his high school buddies from Boston had bought the promotion for $2 million in 2001 and reportedly sold for approximately $4 billion to WME | IMG.
The Fertitta brothers have taken a step back in running UFC. Not Dana White.
The President of UFC is back in the U.S. after joining Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor on a whirlwind four-city press tour to promote the fight of the century on August 26 in Las Vegas. More than 50,000 fans in Los Angeles, Toronto, Brooklyn and London packed into areas to hear what the fighters had to say. Media have filed more than 23,000 news stories about the tour, according to UFC. Company sources are expressing giddy optimism when asked about the fight’s PPV projections. P.T. Barnum is undoubtedly flashing a big “thumbs up” from the great beyond.
White’s ubiquity during the international tour shows a leader who is all in. He could easily have walked away following a giant payday. But the fight game is in Dana’s blood, and he looks the part in his tight, guns-revealing T-shirts.
White says he is working harder than ever, which is also evident in his presence in UFC shoulder programming – outside-the-Octagon content critical to the sport’s continuing growth and success.
While the UFC now claims 260 million fans globally and is the world’s largest PPV business, the promotion was actually struggling in the mid 2000’s when White got together with Spike TV, a network desperate for sports programming but unable to pay for bigtime live-event rights fees.
The promoter with a knack for seeing around corners and the network seeking to attract more young men concocted a reality show called “The Ultimate Fighter.” TUF instantly appealed to millions of new young fans and is credited with saving UFC and pushing the sport into the mainstream.
White understood the importance of shoulder programming, especially for a sport where unpredictable careers can end with one kick to the face. The winning formula of building emotional connections to fighters spawned more UFC content. Twelve years after the debut of TUF, turn on Fox Sports 1 and 2 on any given night, and you’ll undoubtedly find UFC, as part of 2,000 hours of programming UFC produces each year.
With FIGHT PASS, the sport’s subscription-based digital platform, fans can get UFC content any time, including their daily dose of a pugilistic and passionate boss synonymous with the sport.
White has played himself on UFC shows like “Dana White: Looking for a Fight.” In a similar thematic vein – seeking UFC’s stars of tomorrow – he is again the face of new show called ““Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.”
The show, available on UFC FIGHT PASS, launched last week, and its early success is generating plenty of smiles at the sport’s gleaming new corporate campus and fighter training institute in Las Vegas. Each show (streaming live then available on demand) brings fans five fights from Vegas. White awards a UFC contract or two at the end of each episode, which run more than 2 hours.
The events are not open to fans – the audience is friends, family and media only. There are no tryouts; UFC’s matchmakers pick up and comers (new talent hoping to break into UFC) as well as seasoned fighters who may need one final opportunity to revive their UFC careers.
The first episode on Tuesday July 11 exceeded company projections in generating new FIGHT PASS subscriptions, according to UFC. (The company declined to break out specifics.)
In one interesting wrinkle, similar to custom feeds available during March Madness, UFC is offering fans an alternative audio channel. “Snoopcast” features none other than WME client Snoop Dogg along with retired fighter Urijah Faber providing commentary. Snoop is a devoted fight fan, so this is no mere headline-seeking stunt. Fan reaction on social has been very positive.
White’s new show is an interesting content and distribution play to keep an eye on.
It stars a unique and colorful sports executive. It serves as UFC’s main talent development pipeline. And, quietly under the radar, it’s part of the parent company’s burgeoning over-the-top (OTT) strategy.
WME | IMG placed a high valuation in acquiring UFC for several reasons. Mixed Martial Arts is a universal sport transcending borders and cultures. It has easily understood rules, a fast developing female-division, and continuing global growth potential.
Beyond that, Ari Emanuel and his team will continue to push to grow the sport in digital media, by developing opportunities in other divisions (look for fighters to sign with IMG Models following the success of PBR’s Bonner Bolton, a face of American Eagle jeans and coming out with a new fragrance), and through other innovative content plays, particularly OTT.
Already, WME | IMG’s fashion division has launched an OTT called Made2Measure or “M2M.” Sister company PBR is reportedly developing an OTT for western sports. It’s not a stretch to imagine OTTs for other company properties like Miss Universe, which runs the Miss USA pageants.
WME | IMG is building a next-generation media company that owns, manages, and sells events around the globe, represents top talent across entertainment, operates leagues, packages TV and film deals, and also, in some circumstances, goes direct to consumer with this potpourri of talent, events, and stories. FIGHT PASS, as the UFC’s premium OTT service, appears to be in the wheelhouse of this content strategy.
The UFC OTT also serves up to fans greater helpings of one of the most compelling execs in sports – part street brawler, part carnival barker, keen of instinct, an eagle eye for talent, averse to filters, and lacking the political correctness gene.
It’s hard to imagine other league commissioners taking a role like this. But then again, Dana White is like no other top sports executive.