5 Marketing Lessons from the UFC
I’ve been a UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) fan since moving to the U.S. in college. Even though I am not a fighter, I appreciate the skills and mindset required to step into a fighting cage, especially since taking my first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lesson.
The other thing I love about the UFC is their marketing approach, a model that led to the exponential growth of the sport.
Here are some of the ways you can leverage marketing by replicating what the UFC and some of their fighters are using.
Dana White: social media
During the early days of the sport in the 90s, the UFC was suffering from a lack of media coverage and a lack of education around mixed martial art. The UFC had a reputation of being an extremely violent event rather than a showcase of great talent. Later in the 90s, White decides to work with the state athletic commissions to redesign the rules, and make the UFC more accessible to the masses.
Besides those efforts, the UFC wasn’t getting traction from traditional media.
But Dana White understands the power of social media. He tweets everyday, and keeps it raw and transparent. Dana isn’t politically correct and curses a lot. Social media helped him cut the middle man and build direct relationships with his fans.
The strategy was so successful that he decided fighters and even referees should also leverage social media.
I want you to Twitter your asses off!
-Dana White, UFC President
White hired PR firm Digital Royalty to teach the fighters how to properly use social media, and quickly transformed 200 fighters into active users. Having fighters build their brand and momentum before fights had an immediate impact on pay-per-view buys. Recently, UFC 196 broke the record with 1.5 million pay-per-view buys, and 5.5 million Google searches related to the show.
It was the biggest pay-per-view we ever did. Social media was ridiculous.
-Dana White, UFC President
Here are some examples of fighters who use social media to their advantage:
- Nate Diaz: Nate has been well respected amongst die-hard fans, but he’s hard to market to a wider audience because of his big mouth. Besides being in the UFC for years, he hasn’t earned big bucks like a Conor McGregor, until he fought McGregor! By being active on social media and dropping F-Bombs on national television, Nate played a big part in making his fight against Conor the biggest of half time! Following his upset win against the Featherweight champion, Nate now has a ton of leverage to renegotiate his contract. Nate is a fighter, he’s not looking for the spotlight, but he’s doing better at promoting himself after spending years avoiding any PR involvement. Did Nate finally realize the power of his personal brand?
- Paige VanZant: Paige is a fairly new fighter, but she got a lot of attention thanks to our UFC debut TKO, but mainly from being the cutest fighter in the UFC history. After losing for the first time in December 2015, she’s currently a contestant for the Tv show Dancing With The Stars. Thanks to her UFC background/dancing skills and her huge social media following, Paige is casting a lot of votes. She even earned scored a perfect 30 for her latest routine!
- Demetrious Johnson: Considered the best pound-for-pound fighter by Joe Rogan, Demetrious isn’t a trash talker like Nate Diaz, nor as flashy as McGregor. Demetrious had to find other ways to market himself, one of them being his love for video games. After the Reebok deal tear Johnson’s Xbox deal apart, He had to make it up for his revenue lost. This is when he decided becoming a full time video game streamer on Twitch was the way to go. His streamings of DOTA 2 and Bloodborne are popular, and even led to a funny story when the UFC champ got interupted for a routine drug test.
Conor McGregor: the power of personal brand
Conor is a character. Some fighters actually say he’s a very nice guy behind the curtain. It’s all part of the strategy, making sure people talk about him. This has helped him promoting his fights and changing his career from a struggling upcoming fighter to a multimillion businessman.
Within two years of signing with UFC, Conor got a shot at the interim title belt while the champion Aldo was out. He then predicted how he would beat Aldo for his comeback. McGregor is one of the best trash-talkers you’ll ever seen, and he uses that to his advantage to get into his opponents head and hype the fights! This is one of the reasons his personal brand helped him become a well-paid fighter. His tailored suits, his accent, his big chest-tattoo, all that makes McGregor unique and recognizable. All this helped him stand out in a championship who had 500+ fighters in 2015.
I can make you rich. I’ll change your bum life. When you sign to fight me, it’s a celebration. You ring back home, you ring your wife – baby, we’ve done it. We’re rich, baby. Conor McGregor made us rich. Break out the red panties.
-Conor McGregor to Rafael Dos Anjos
Building a strong personal brand also allowed the Irish fighter to diversify his revenue:
- Fight earnings, bonuses: $590,000 + $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus for UFC 194, $1,090,000 +$50,000 Fight of the Night bonus for UFC 196
- Pay-per-view revenue: For UFC 196 only, McGregor earned an estimated $6 Million (1.5 million pay-per-view buys with at least $3-$5 per buy)
- Multiple endorsement contracts: Monster deal, Game of War, Bud Light, Fanatics, BSN and many more
- Reebok deal: $40,000 for each of his last two fights, plus his own merchandising line
His recent feud with the UFC itself has created more good than harm. With one tweet, McGregor generated more publicity than by attending the PR tour he was required to do in NYC.
McGregor always pushes for more. In his search for records and money, he even went outside his weight class to fight Nate Diaz, the biggest fight ever financially.
His lost against Diaz tells us one thing: being confident is good, but being prepared is better. Don’t take any opponent lightly, and capitalize on your strengths.
I know Conor will get back to basics and train hard. He has always backed up his trash talk with what matters the most: winning in the octagon. I hope his lost against Nate Diaz won’t hurt him too much, and that he won’t become the new Ronda Rousey, lost in media obligations and forgetting what got him there in the first place, fighting.
Carlos Condit: Think outside the box, try something new
Carlos Condit is an impressive fighter (30 wins and 9 losses), but he’s never been more than the best #2.
After losing two title bouts and suffering a torn ACL and meniscus, it was time for Condit to step away from the cage and think: What could I do differently? What is one thing that other fighters are not working on? What’s my competitive advantage?
This is when he met Erwan Le Corre, the founder of a physical education system and lifestyle known as MovNat, which derives from the French words “mouvement naturel”. Picking up this different type of training, Carlos was able to work on balance and movement rather than power.
This “outside of the box” training led him to a strong win against Thiago Alves, and gave him its third title shot against Robbie Lawler. He eventually lost again by split decision, but this fight has been considered one of the best of all time.
Content is king, quality is queen
Due to some issues with pay-per-view, Dana White lost millions before turning the UFC around.
Social media played a big part in the success of the sport, but he would have never worked without a great content marketing strategy.
It all started when Dana White launched the first season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. The reality TV show features professional MMA fighters living together in Las Vegas, training and competing against each other for a million-dollar contract with the UFC.
The historic Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar fight drew millions of viewers to the show, playing a big role into the survival and expansion of the UFC into the mainstream. Following upcoming fighters is a great for the UFC create “personal” connections between its fans and athletes.
With the new Fox deal, the show eventually moved from Spike to Fox Sports 1.
Over the years, White has capitalized on his previous successes to flood the internet with more content.
Here are some initiatives the UFC uses to promote their sport while expanding their empire:
UFC fight pass: A subscription-based digital network launched in 2013 for $9.99 aimed at die-hard fans. Subscribers have access to pay-per-view prelims, as well as the fight libraries of numerous other MMA leagues, but the main selling point was the promise of a minimum of 10 exclusive live events per year. The WWE has since copied the model with the difference that PPV is included.
YouTube: The content created by the UFC on their YouTube is massive! From its vlogs series to free fights and previews, a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to go through all of it. They also launched a new show in 2016 called Dana White: Lookin’ for a Fight, in which White travels with this friends Matt Serra and Nick “The Tooth” Gullo throughout the U.S. to look for upcoming fighters while exploring the country à la Anthony Bourdain.
Social media live broadcasts: Before Fight Pass, the UFC used to have their free prelims on Facebook, years before Facebook introduces Live video broadcast to the rest of us. Since then, they’ve moved through multiple platforms for more behind the scenes, including Meerkat, and now Periscope.
Unfortunately, creating more content comes at a price: quality. A lot of fans, including me, have been disappointed by the Fox deal, which besides generating more money and great exposure, has created cards filled of boring fights with no interests.
Stay true to yourself: the challenge of getting bigger
Dana White did a great job building momentum using social media and content marketing. But when you’re that big, how do keep that momentum going? How do you keep on growing exponentially?
Ultimately, White had to pair his online marketing strategy with making deals with mainstream media and companies to do so.
Those deals didn’t please everyone, and received a lot of backlash from some fans and fighters.
Reebok: In December 2014, the UFC announced a six-year, $70 million uniform deal with sports apparel company Reebok. For Reebok, social media exposure UFC fighters bring is worth millions.
The deal requires fighters to wear Reebok gear in-competition, and be paid based upon either experience or status. UFC champions ($40,000) and title challengers ($30,000) receive the most per fight, while UFC newcomers with 1-5 fights receive the least ($2,500).
Despite a seemingly positive image rebranding for the sport, the deal is not a popular one among the majority of fighters, as almost all were earning more through pre existing sponsors. On top of that, Reebok’s UFC products have also proven to have serious quality control issues.
Fox: In 2011, the UFC signed a seven-year broadcast rights deal with Fox Sports. Even Fox is happy with the deal, and the UFC is content with the exposure it’s gaining, ratings have been lower than expected. With 13 PPVs, 22 UFC Fight Night cards (Fox Sports 1/Fight Pass), four UFC on Fox cards and two The Ultimate Fighter Finale cards (Fox Sports 1/Fight Pass) all in 2014, the UFC has the capacity to deliver enough content for all of their media channels.
However, fans have been complaining about the quality of the events, criticizing the for watering down a lot of its cards. The UFC has dialed back its total events since then (41 in 2015, down from 46 in 2014).
When the UFC didn’t have access to traditional media, they turn to social media and content marketing to break through. With a little training, the CEO even turned his employees into advocates.
Unfortunately, White had to recently tone that down on Twitter and other media. Signing big contracts with Fox and Reebok comes with the Politically Correct culture of mainstream media and corporations.
Is the UFC losing its authenticity?