UFC Fan Expo in Toronto a Huge Victory for the UFC

Elton HobsonCorrespondent IApril 30, 2011

If you judged solely by walking around the packed Direct Energy Centre the last two days, you'd think Toronto had been embracing Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC since the days of Royce Gracie.

The truth, of course, is that the sport only became legal here late last year, the end process of a long lobbying and PR campaign for the UFC.

Only it's not the end; not by a long shot. The sport is still banned in key markets like New York, still in its infancy in countries like the Philippines, Germany, Australia and (surprisingly enough) Brazil.

For the UFC then, this Fan Expo isn't a celebration of a job well done; it's just another front in a PR battle that's still ongoing.

"We plan to do an economic impact study [in Toronto] after the event. And yeah, we plan on showing that to New York." said UFC Vice-President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner, who as the former head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission has been instrumental in pushing the UFC's vision of a well-regulated MMA landscape around the world.

"It's great to drive around Toronto and seeing the banners everywhere. People are treating this like a Super Bowl, or the Final Four." Ratner enthused during a brief moment of calm Friday afternoon.

"This is bringing a lot to the economy of Toronto. There's a certain percentage of people from Buffalo here. This is a big thing. There's no reason, no fathomable reason, why New York has not approved the sport."

Here here, Mr. Ratner. But UFC 129 aside, the two day Fan Expo has been a rousing commercial success in and of itself. This sort of model has been tried with great success in markets like Las Vegas and Boston, so it only makes sense that it would catch on in the city Dana White calls "The Mecca of Mixed Martial Arts."

UFC Fan Expo features over 300,000 square feet of booths, seminars, interactive tutorials, live Q&A's and just about everything else an MMA fan could ask for. Over 125 different vendors from across the MMA spectrum have packed into Direct Energy Centre to peddle their wares, so there's also no shortage of swag for fans to kit themselves out in for tonight's UFC 129 mega-event.

The UFC had predicted 30,000 fans would make their way to fan expo over the course of two days. If the crowds so far are any indication, they are well on their way to blowing that estimate out of the water.

And that's to say nothing of the 50 past and current UFC fighters expected to make an appearance at Fan Expo, either to sign autographs, lead a seminar or just mingle on the floor with their adoring public.

Needless to say, it's been a pretty hectic couple of days for all those involved. UFC President Dana White called this past week "the busiest week in company history".

It's a sentiment echoed around the upper echelons of UFC senior management.

"I don't think I have one free minute in any month starting with the letter A." UFC Canada President Tom Wright joked during a brief tour of the event floor.

A former director of the CFL, Wright is the man many give credit to for lending legitimacy and force to the UFC's push for legalization in Ontario.

And if this fan expo and UFC 129 itself are indicators of hard work paying off, Wright certainly isn't content to rest on his laurels.

"I think there's still a lot of room for the sport to grow in Ontario and across Canada," Wright said.

"Even though our first trip here has been huge, to my mind, this is only the beginning. This is only a glimpse of how big the sport could become [in Canada]."

If that's the case, then UFC 129 and the UFC Fan Expo seem to show a rosy future for MMA in the Great White North. And judging from the large, passionate turnout of fans from Toronto and all over the world, that's a future everyone is getting on board with.

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