The UFC has been a textbook example of brand growth using both the digital and traditional space over the past five years. They have even gotten profiled by Mashable on their social media platforms. They have followed a playbook first set (and then abandoned) by boxing. Then, they moved on to the WWE design of using traditional TV and media as the driver for large gate pay-per-view events and a very unique experience in-arena.
It has been a solid run for the UFC and their fans, fans who prefer the their particular brand than the actual sport of Mixed Martial Arts. Still with all their success, the UFC model has not brought in too many valuable new sponsors outside of Bud Light and Harley Davidson, who came on several years ago and gained the great benefits from a partnership with Spike TV.
The UFC continues to expand into new markets with success, but always returns for bigger-name shows to Las Vegas. The company talks about more overseas expansion and continues to do well in the gaming and product sales area. So what’s the next step?
How can the company gain more mainstream exposure, not in news coverage but in consistent larger viewership? Does the UFC need another company to step up as a legitimate, consistent international competitor? Is the market big enough for two major MMA brands?
In recent weeks, UFC head Dana White, began appearing in print ads for American Express commercials talking about his “softer side.” The ads have White discussing skateboarding and his kids in the surf in California, all in script and all in black and white. These ads are an attempt to show the community that there is a good, solid business behind a man who loves to be edgy and drop “F bombs” in interviews.
The question is: will it work? Or, will the decision alienate those who love the edgy action sport niche, and have kept the UFC alive for all these years? Does the UFC need to go this way to get to more mainstream success (which, by the way, could be a sign that they have maxed out the dollars they are getting from their core consumer)?
The WWE (witness Linda McMahon’s run for Senate in Connecticut) did do a masterful job in having both Vince and Linda McMahon show their business capabilities and grow their business. They gained credibility in the mainstream over time but, the WWE is a public corporation with a board and stockholders to answer to. Even though the UFC recently sold some of its equity to outside investors, it remains a privately held corporation, so it does not have Wall Street to answer to. Actually, those on Wall Street who follow UFC probably enjoy White’s edgy pla, so why make the attempt, especially if it is not genuine?
Make no mistake about it, the UFC is as well-designed as it is edgy, and they know how to play their cards. However, as NASCAR has learned in recent years, trying to grow your business can mean alienating your core, and that risk sometimes may sometimes not lead to a reward.
Is the UFC bandwagon slowing down? Perhaps. Is White’s commercial a test to see if there is interest in a kinder, softer UFC? Probably so. One thing is for sure, though: MMA at the top level remains a violent and brutal sport that is about fighting. The fighters have good stories and work hard, and their fans are passionate. Making it into some kind of kinder, gentler sport will not work, even with the poorly thought out “Chess with Blood” analogies. Trying to be something you’re not can lead to bigger issues in the long run, and the loss of a core is very hard to bring back when people have fewer discretionary dollars to spend.
This is a story worth following.