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PizDoff
9/27/2005 1:09am,
Growth of Ultimate Fighting far from tapped out

By William Spain
Last Updated: 9/27/2005 12:01:00 AM



LAS VEGAS (MarketWatch) - Randy Couture is an old pro in a new game.

After eight years or so of grounding and/or pounding his opponents around the cage, the 42-year-old Couture is now one of the most recognized faces of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and a star of a reality show on Spike TV.

He has also had a bird's eye view of the UFC's transition from a bloody, often-criticized spectacle to a still-bloody, but a sanctioned, less frequently attacked and increasingly mainstream sport.

"When I started, it was completely different," he said. "You could pretty much do anything except bite, gouge in the eyes and strike in the groin. And there were huge mismatches where guys really got beat up."

Now, "there are a lot of rules," he said, along with a format and scoring system more akin to boxing that has made it easier to understand and more viewer [and regulator] friendly.

"On the whole, our image has changed as people have gotten to know us," he added. "When they get over their initial shock of seeing somebody on top of somebody else on the ground punching and all those sorts of things and really tune into the tactics and techniques of the sport, they are immediately hooked."

Watch an interview with Couture.

Hard knocks

The early no-holds-barred approach helped the fighting, also known as mixed martial arts (MMA) because it encompasses both striking and grappling elements, build up a hardcore fan base and high pay-per-view numbers. But it was roundly condemned in the media, banned in many locales and shunned by sponsors.

Fighters still can - and often do - get knocked around pretty hard, but the rule changes and some very savvy marketing instituted by new owners -- brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who run Station Casinos (STN) -- in 2001 have helped the UFC attract larger audiences, knockout TV ratings and a growing list of commercial sponsors.

"Because of its past, it has taken us some time to convince people... that this is a true sport," said Lorenzo Fertitta, who remembered being "both intrigued and appalled" the first time he saw MMA fighting back in the early 1990s.

"But I think we are now at the tipping point where people are starting to realize that and it is helping us to grow the business significantly," he said. "Now all of a sudden we are getting blue-chip advertisers who want to be associated with the brand."

Watch interview with Lorenzo Feritta.

Spike driving

Key to that growth, which has dramatically accelerated in the last year, was the January debut of "The Ultimate Fighter," a reality series on Viacom (VIA) cable channel Spike. The program features two teams of fighters training together with an elimination bout each week and the last man standing at the end of the season gets a UFC contract. It is currently in the middle of its second season and has been renewed for two more.

"The Ultimate Fighter" is the network's most popular original show ever and runs behind only pro wrestling and the CBS drama "CSI" in the ratings. But it is drawing men in the 18-to-34 age group, a notoriously elusive advertiser demographic, by the million.

"I always thought it would do well but it exceeded any of my expectations," said Kevin Kay, vice-president of programming and production for Spike. "The first season was great [but] already the first two weeks of the second are exceeding everything we did last year."

The WWE "is still doing better," he added. "But they are 30 years old [on free TV] and this is a year old."

Although a goodly chunk of ad time in the series, and associated full-card "Fight Nights," is still devoted to promoting the next UFC pay-per-view event, national advertisers are steadily coming on board. Among those buying in are Burger King, News Corp's (NWS) Fox, Gillette (G), ConAgra's (CAG) Slim Jims and the U.S. Army.

Growth on the edge

Robert Riesenberg, president of ad agency group Omnicom's (OMC) Full Circle Entertainment, was involved in the creation of the Spike show and he predicts that sponsorship will continue to grow.

"From a marketing standpoint, there are other edgy, youth-oriented products that will come in: videogames, energy drinks, sporting goods ..." he said. "It is a marketer's dream and it is relatively new [so they] can in effect get in and ride the wave. Everyone likes to get into a relationship with someone who understands who their audience is and these guys understand it really well."

Ray Dundas, group director of national broadcast for Initiative, a media-buying arm of Interpublic Group (IPG), is more skeptical.

"It is certainly a violent sport, which will attract young men in general but the kind of advertisers who want to embrace it is considerably limited," he said.

He likened the sport's current status to "the early days of wrestling but because the UFC is real, it makes advertisers a little more squeamish."

Besides, he added, "there are [advertisers] who have never been in wrestling."

For David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group, the UFC is "very intriguing both from a sports standpoint and an advertising standpoint. It has come a long way in improving its perception from a decade [when] they were a bunch of back-alley brawlers."

It has "become a very viable business due in largest part to its enhanced legitimacy," he said, and sponsors are apt to like the "tightness" of the demographic.

"What they have may not be fully appreciated," Carter said. "I think their future growth is going to be a function of how well they continue to polish their brand along with how well they adapt to the ever-changing media environment."

Fortunately for the UFC, it is unlikely to be dependent on ad revenue alone anytime soon, if ever. Business in DVDs is brisk and fights draw between 250,000 and 350,000 on pay-per-view, said UFC president Dana White, who also owns a piece of the business.

That is less than half the 750,000 a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) event might draw, he said, "but we are neck-and-neck with boxing."

White expects the Spike programming to boost the pay-per-view numbers and vice-versa.

"We put the up-and-coming fighters regularly on free TV and turn them into pay-per-view stars," White said. "And then we feed [viewers] back to the TV show."

Another revenue stream comes via the box office. UFC cards at Las Vegas casinos like MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay have become big draws, with celebrity-studded crowds and gates in excess of $2 million. And that has won them admirers inside their home town's biggest industry.

"I remember when the Fertittas bought it," said Jim Murren, president and CFO of MGM Mirage (MGM). "I thought it was clever but I had no idea how smart. These are highly trained athletes. The first time I saw it, I was mesmerized."

In Las Vegas, he added, "the UFC is far more valuable than World Wrestling ever was because it gets a much better gaming demographic."

http://www.investors.com/breakingnews.asp?journalid=31874932&brk=1

Pretty good article.

Maestro Nobones
9/27/2005 6:31pm,
rock.

chaosexmachina
9/27/2005 8:29pm,
Another sign that MMA is becoming more and more respected as a sport. Hurrah!

CaliKyle
9/28/2005 5:57pm,
That was very encouraging to read, thanks for the thread.

Captain Spaulding
9/28/2005 10:42pm,
Good article.

I thought of something while reading this. It seems like MMA is the only sport in this country whose legitimacy and exposure is based largely on the business of a single promotion. Many other sports were around and accepted before media coverage was as much of a necessity.

Plus, with other sports, one promotion or organization does not equal the entirety of the sport. Football is bigger than the NFL, even though it is the organization best known. Same with every other sport I can think of. Only with MMA (maybe because it is so new), organization (UFC) = sport (MMA).

The UFC has had to change its rules a number of times so that it can be presented, both to an audience and to people watching it on TV.

I wonder how a similar situation would have affected the growth of other sports like baseball and football...

SamuraiJack
9/29/2005 4:21am,
Yeah. Two guys beating the crap out of each other sure is a "sport".

Man. Who are they trying to kid? It's two guys beating the crap out of each other. The end.

The old UFC was at least a bit more realistic and hardcore, and didn't have a "Let's make all the rules really suit grapplers hey." Mentality quite as much.

JohnnyCache
9/29/2005 4:52am,
Ahm, you shouldn't post anymore till you've read the groundfighting faq. You're an ass if you think the people in top-end MMA competitions aren't top-notch atheletes.

And which is it, is it biased toward grappling, or two people unscientifically beating each other? Don't troll conflicting viewpoints.

Letum
9/29/2005 4:57am,
Bah, He's only been here a while and already Jack is pissing me off.

His nonchalent uneducated disregardfullness is infact, more annoying trolling, then the usual pertinent retards.

Captain Spaulding
9/29/2005 10:26am,
It's a lot more of a sport than poker. Or car racing.

And how are the rules skewed to favor grapplers? The only rule I can think of that would do this is the prohibition on kicking to the head on a downed opponent. But Pride doesn't have this rule and grapplers still do pretty well, I'd say.

Shuma-Gorath
9/29/2005 10:58am,
Yeah. Two guys beating the crap out of each other sure is a "sport".

Man. Who are they trying to kid? It's two guys beating the crap out of each other. The end.

The old UFC was at least a bit more realistic and hardcore, and didn't have a "Let's make all the rules really suit grapplers hey." Mentality quite as much.

http://img245.imageshack.us/img245/4817/aku16mr.jpg

FOOLISH SAMURAI! I SEE YOU HAVE GAINED NO-O WISDOM SINCE I CAST YOU INTO THE FUTURE. SU-UCH A PIT-EEEEEE. YOU WILL NEVER CHALLENGE THE MIGHT OF A-KU!

WHILE YOU WERE TRAPPED SAILING THROUGH TIME, THE ONE CALLED DANA WHITE AND THE CONTROLLING COMPANY OF THE UFC HAVE MADE RULES TO FAVOUR STRIKING OVER GRAPPLING FOR THE EXCITEMENT OF CLUELESS GAIJINS. WHITE HAS ALSO FIRED BRAVE MEN SUCH AS MATT LINDLAND FOR BEING MERE "BO-RING GRAPPLERS". THIS DISPLEASED AKU BECAUSE HE IS A HUGE TEAM QUEST FAN FROM MY DAYS AT OREGON STATE.

BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY, YOU THINK THAT THE RULES OF THE MODERN U F C ARE MORE FOCUSED ON GRAPPLING THAN WHEN IT WAS RUN BY THE CRAFTY MUSTACHIOED RORION GRACIE? I LOL AT YOUR PITIFUL HYPOTHESIS, SAMURAI! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA !!!!!


NOW, BE GONE!

Captain Spaulding
9/29/2005 11:37am,
I thought Rorion did away with the soup-strainer. When he was doing the Gracie Advanced tapes, he didn't have it anymore. Granted, that was a few years ago.

Anyway:

Space Ghost > Samurai Jack.

Meager
9/29/2005 11:52am,
Yeah. Two guys beating the crap out of each other sure is a "sport".

Man. Who are they trying to kid? It's two guys beating the crap out of each other. The end.

The old UFC was at least a bit more realistic and hardcore, and didn't have a "Let's make all the rules really suit grapplers hey." Mentality quite as much.
Standing up fights when there's little action on the ground clearly favors grapplers. So do rounds and time limits for that matter.

Knightmare
9/29/2005 2:56pm,
TUF ratings seem to indicate the inverse.

Poncho
9/29/2005 4:08pm,
Ive seen arguements where people say the cage itself is better for grapplers.


Im a pride fan, and ive seen plenty of ground fighting there in the ring.

This guy doesnt like the fact that with out a ground game, you will get worked in ufc or pride., and its the same honestly if you cant strike at all.

To fight in ufc or pride, you need many tools, if you dont have one of the tools your oppent has, its very likely your in big trouble.

The best way to win a fight, is to find your enmeys weakness and capitolize on it, if you have a ground and he doesnt, why would you strike with? Your there to win period.And it can all be said for striking too. Thats why those fights are so fun to watch, its like a violent chess match, with tons of stratgey for the most part.