UFC Delivers a Knockout: Global Expansion Is Key to UFC's Rise to the Top

Jed HughesCorrespondent ISeptember 25, 2012

UFC 152: Jon Jones successfully defended his UFC Light Heavyweight belt against Brazilian sensation, Vitor Belfort at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada
UFC 152: Jon Jones successfully defended his UFC Light Heavyweight belt against Brazilian sensation, Vitor Belfort at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, CanadaTom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Once a struggling brand, UFC is now the largest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion company in the world and is aiming towards further global expansion. In 2012 alone, UFC has scheduled 32 events in nine countries and five continents, and its programming is now accessible in over 350 million homes and 145 countries.

The ascent of UFC began in January 2001, when business partners Frank Fertitta, Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White founded UFC under the brand name Zuffa. During this time there was stigma attached to the sport, including a campaign led against it by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who labeled it "human cockfighting."

In response, the UFC enforced stricter rules and became regulated in 45 of the 48 states under an athletic commission (Wyoming and Alaska do not have state athletic commissions). These rule changes and regulations have even swayed the opinion of the former Republican Presidential nominee.

Furthermore, the UFC has managed to avoid the stigma associated with concussions—unlike the NFL and NHL—mainly because of its strict safety policies. In addition to mandatory hospitalization, a fighter diagnosed with a concussion is required to refrain from contact of any kind for at least 45 days and is usually prohibited from competition for 60 days.

However, there are still naysayers to overcome. New York is one of the three states that has declined to sanction MMA events, which means UFC is barred from utilizing the "World’s Most Famous Arena," Madison Square Garden. UFC has aggressively lobbied to pass athletic sanctioning in New York and sued New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to try and overturn the state's mandate against MMA.

MMA was still somewhat of a fringe sport, until UFC launched The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) on Spike TV in January 2005, which proved to be a game changer. The reality show provided backstories of the athletes, while simultaneously creating rivalries and introducing a new breed of amateur fighters.

TUF: US vs. UK, one of the UFC's most successful campaigns, featured middleweights Dan Henderson (US) and Michael Bisping (UK). After the conclusion of the 2009 series, professional fighters/coaches Henderson and Bisping squared off at UFC 100, the most successful pay-per-view event for MMA at the time. Henderson emerged victorious and, in the process, earned the "Knockout of the Night" award.

Recently, TUF has evolved into a global reality series, set most recently in Brazil. The UFC will continue its global approach with the highly anticipated season premiere of TUF: The Smashes, which launches on Sept. 19, and will feature the UK vs. Australia. The stars of the show are Ross Pearson, former contestant and winner of TUF: US vs. UK, and Australian sensation George Sotiropoulos. Much of the UFC’s future global expansion will consist of incorporating talent worldwide in its popular reality series.

In efforts to gain a larger fan base nationally, the UFC launched a UFC on Fox series, consisting of four nationally televised fight cards in 2012. Despite competition from the London Olympics in August, UFC on Fox 4 managed to draw in 2.44 million viewers, surpassing the audience levels of UFC on Fox 3.

With eight weight classes, the UFC offers a competitive balance of fighters and an unparalleled pool of talent. Top fighters UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva, a native of Brazil, and Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre, a Canadian, have a large and growing fan base worldwide.

Further, White, UFC's president, is targeting South Africa and India for future venues. While Africa remains the only inhabited continent where UFC has not staged an event, the sport has a growing fan base in South Africa and hopes to enter the market soon.

It has taken years to win over governments and the United States' competitive sports marketplace, but the UFC has managed to establish an enormous global reputation. Furthermore, UFC, now a $2 billion industry, has become one of the most successfully developed global sports businesses. More impressive, UFC, often thought of as a male dominant sport is now comprised of a 40% female following according to a feature on Canada.com.

Today, UFC bills itself as the "largest live pay-per-view event provider in the world." MMA fighters have largely supplanted boxers in the public consciousness. With the exception of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, boxing has struggled to present compelling personalities and, in contrast to the sport's heyday in the 70s and 80s, few people can name today's top heavyweight contenders. Largely believed as a male dominant sport, UFC viewership is comprised of a 40% UFC has filled the void with exciting action and interesting personalities and seems unlikely to relinquish the spotlight—particularly if the sport breaks through in New York.

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.