UFC to cash-in on popularity surge in Europe with stadium shows and new TV deals

The promotion's vice president tells Newstalk about its expansion plans

UFC to cash-in on popularity surge in Europe with stadium shows and new TV deals

INPHO / Cathal Noonan

When the UFC last visited Dublin in October of last year, it sold out Dublin's 3Arena in 90 seconds.

After the main event and replacement main events were both cancelled due to fighters pulling out through injury, the promotion offered full refunds to the 10,000 ticket holders who had paid between €50 and €175 to attend - but the show remained sold out.

"We’ve sold out the two shows in Dublin in record time, even when the card was decimated through injuries in October - the fans still turned out and supported us really well. That did not go unnoticed by everybody at the HQ in Vegas," James Elliott, the UFC's Vice-President and General Manager for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa told Newstalk.com.

James Elliott - UFC chief in Europe

Although Irish World Champion Conor McGregor did not appear on the card, he publicly suggested at the time that he should be paid some of the profit's from the Dublin show, because - in his opinion - he had made it happen.

He had a point. The second postponed headline fight was between Joe Duffy - the last fighter to beat McGregor before he joined the UFC - and Dustin Poirier who has previously been defeated by McGregor. As a result, the bout still very much carried the 'McGregor narrative,' and was a scene-setter for a potential future fight for the Dubliner.

Statement event

Elliott says that his ambition is to bring a premium UFC show to Europe in the next 18 months, and if he does so, Dublin's two largest stadiums will be in the running to host it.

Having a major event in Europe is complicated by the time difference between the region and the UFC's core market in the US where pay-per-view TV is the company's main source of income. Staging an event at on off-peak time would be costly, but Mr Elliott says that the company is working on bringing a 'numbered' premium UFC event to the continent. 

"It would be a fantastic brand play for us to have a big numbered (PPV) event in Europe. It’s something that we’re definitely focused on. It’s very easy for us to see what it could do for our business - we just need to convince the right people that it’s the right thing to do at the right time."

He added that a card featuring a fighter like Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey could "kick-start" further growth for the UFC in Europe.

"The numbers are getting closer in terms of how we could make it work, there’s still a lot of moving parts. I feel we’re not that far away, certainly within the 18-month time frame, and that’s something that we’re focused on," he told Newstalk.

If a big show does come, the organisation is "doing its homework" and has actively engaged with two of the country's biggest stadia.

"Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium are two places that we’ve looked at, we’ve made no secret about that. Conor (McGregor) has certainly made no secret about the fact that he wants to fight in Dublin. It’s something that’s on the agenda" the UFC executive said.

Although he did add that some "structural" issues would need to be addressed before an outdoor Dublin show could happen, with curfews and noise restrictions being a major concerns.

Debuts

But the spike in the popularity of MMA is not just an Irish phenomenon. While the sport has been helped by the emergence of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, characters who have transcended that sport, the company has been involved in a slower build bringing the UFC into new European markets.

"One of the things we always like to do is to leave people outside, we want it to be the hottest ticket in town wherever we can go. We want arenas as full as they can possibly be, we want people hanging off the rafters," Mr Elliott said, commenting on the UFC's moves into new countries.

The UFC's last two European shows were in new regions, Croatia and Netherlands. Both shows sold out - but these adventures are about more than ticket sales.

As media consumption continues to fragment, live sports are one of the only sections of live broadcasting that have seen their value increase.

The company will stage five or six shows in Europe during 2016, and the European-head says that the promotion hopes to "leave something behind" in these markets through new TV deals.

Its shows are currently aired on BT Sports in the UK and Ireland, with 3e offering delayed coverage in Ireland, but these contracts finish at the end of July.

Sky Sports is reported to be interested in the rights, Elliott says that news on this issue will come in the next few weeks.

The UK deal was agreed in 2013, only one month after McGregor's debut. It's fair to suggest that the shrewd businesses men in the organisation will negotiate better terms than they did three years, given both the sport's rise in popularity and the inflated prices that other sports' TV rights have been sold for in the UK recently.

Sport as Reality TV

'Narrative' is a key word in the UFC universe. Detractors compare the sport to the WWE, but the owners have openly said that the company took cues from the organisation, particularly the need to install narratives around fights to entertain and draw in audiences.

The original UFC was marketed as a freak show before now-President Dana White convinced his childhood friends, the Fertitta brothers, Frank III and Lorenzo (heirs to a Las Vegas casino empire) to buy the struggling franchise for $2m in 2001 (it is currently rumoured to be in takeover talks that would value it at $4bn).

The company gained a foothold when it tapped into the early noughties reality TV zeitgeist. It made its own self-financed reality TV series The Ultimate Fighter. The concept of the show is straightforward: a group of fighters live together, and fight week-by-week, with the losers being eliminated, and the eventual winner given a UFC contract.

The show built narratives around the fights and captured fly-on-the-wall footage of fighters playing pranks on each other, or falling-out in the house. The show aired on Spike in 2005 and was an immediate hit, so much so that it is still running to this day.

Working from that TV platform they got out of the red - and started to make headway in the pay-per-view market. One million plus paid to watch a live event in late 2006.

On the week of big fight cards, the UFC follows fighters for its own 'Embedded' YouTube series - building narratives around the fights in the same way that Ultimate Fighter did. These videos have attracted up to 1.9 million views, adding a digital video revenue stream - while also hyping PPV fights.

Control

The sport has also begun future-proofing by developing Fight Pass, its own streaming platform.

The service was originally created to offer fan access to the promotions archive, but it is increasingly being used as a platform to air live events. James Elliott says that "it’s become a key part of our business very quickly."

Building Fightpass means that the company has a firm 'Plan B' if the floor falls out of the TV market, as consumers continue to migrate online. Streaming the content on its own platform also cuts out the TV and PPV middle-men.

For now, the European operation's main goal is to convince the top executives in Las Vegas to put resources into staging more European shows. The sport, which has dubbed itself the "fastest growing in the world", continues to attract new fans on both sides of the Atlantic, and Elliott maintains that "the best way to grow is by staging live events."