UFC: Are the Plans for International Expansion Too Aggressive?

Matthew RyderFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2013

Dec 8, 2012, Seattle, WA, USA; Alexander Gustafsson fights Mauricio Rua (not pictured) during their light heavyweight bout at MMA on FOX 5 at Key Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The UFC has been growing at a pretty astounding pace.

Like those weeds that never seem to be all the way gone in your summer lawn or a 12-year-old lad shooting up eight inches in a few months once he gets his first taste of testosterone (without the replacement therapy, of course), the promotion is just plain growing.

Much of that is due to the savvy and tireless efforts of Dana White and his partners in business, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta. The trio took a sport that most equated with televised homicide and turned it into one of the fastest growing varieties of entertainment available in the world.

And they did it by being aggressive. They identified markets that were in love with combat sports, and they went hard after fans there.

Then, along the way, they fell into some other markets they didn’t expect and went hard there too.

Now they’re going a step further and identifying places that just plain have lots of people in them and hoping that those people will become UFC fans.

They’ve had the Midas Touch to this point, with grossly more success than failure, but now one can’t help but wonder whether or not it’s a step too far.

It’s often hard to get a proper gauge of the UFC’s truthfulness in statements of operation. Regardless of what they do or how they do it, it’s a rare thing for them to come out and state that things failed outright. They’re a lot more honest than many sports organizations, but they’re not infallible.

They’ve proven to have a good thing in most American cities they target, and every event that’s taken place in Canada has sold with the enthusiasm usually reserved for Molson products and Tim Horton’s coffee. The UK and Australia have been hot markets, and Brazil has turned into a full-on madhouse for MMA. Even Japan, a longtime stalwart the UFC has tried to crack, seems to be coming around.

They haven’t failed much in the past ten years when breaking new ground. They’ve almost all been home runs. The only question has been by how much the ball has cleared the fence.

But this has created a bit of a conundrum: with the hottest markets already conquered, where does the UFC go from here? Outside of Mexico, which has been a puzzling dud to this point in the Zuffa regime, there’s no clear answer.

Thus, it’s left to White and the Fertittas essentially throwing darts at a map and choosing the more populated options in which to stage their shows. What pops up are big plans to go places like China and India, despite no obvious proclivity towards MMA in these nations, or nations like them.

This could prove quarrelsome.

There’s only so much land on this planet, and only so much of it is populated. Out of that population, only so many people want to watch two men (or women) beat each other up.

And that’s the UFC’s business.

Mixed results in a place like Germany or Ireland may be a sign of things to come for the international expansion of the world’s biggest MMA promotion. Then again, what looks to be a strong new market in Sweden might be a sign also. It’s hard to say.

The UFC is going hard in hopes of bolstering their grip on the global fight fan because they know no other way. They’ve come this far on aggression and selling an interesting product, and they’ll be damned if anyone is going to tell them that’s not enough now.

But maybe it isn’t.

Maybe the appetite for MMA isn’t out there in places that the UFC insists it is. Maybe if these places loved MMA there’d already be notable regional promotions and credible stars awaiting UFC contracts. At least that seemed to be the way it was over the past few years, as the promotion fattened its proverbial belly on expanding its reach.

This isn’t to say that what the UFC is doing is wrong, or that it’s not going to work. They’re a lot more qualified to predict trends in MMA fandom than a columnist on the internet, and they’re a lot better equipped with the resources to do it too.

But with so much expansion going on, so many new markets being tested and so many shows being hammered out, maybe tending to the garden that’s been established might be a good idea?

2012, despite what White will tell you, wasn’t a great year for the UFC. They didn’t succeed. They succeeded relatively, and in spite of themselves. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

This isn’t about global expansion as a good idea in general. This is about global expansion as a good idea now, today, when any sort of positive momentum is needed to show the fans that are already there that 2013 will be a good year.

The day will come that the octagon will land in some sexy new locales, and new fans will catch the bug. But it’s hard to argue that focusing on it as a here-and-now project isn’t a little bit misplaced.