This weekend there will be an event with lots of buzz, a sellout crowd, fans from all over the world tuning in, passionate supporters of the athletes buying up thousands of dollars in merchandise and brands looking to engage a core base of loyalists who spend money to support and activate against their brands. And then there will also be the Super Bowl in Miami.
The event we are referring to is UFC 109, which will take place at the Mandalay Events Center Saturday night in Las Vegas, and has become a great alternative for those who love football, but may love Mixed Martial Arts just as much or even more.
While there is still more than a little contention over how "hot" professional Mixed Martial Arts is as a sport, one thing is for sure, the UFC as an experiential brand, is certainly very hot and very active for the men's demo. That will be in full view again Saturday, both in Vegas on one of the biggest wagering weekends of the year and for all those who will but Saturday night's Pay-per-view. The event will feature a number of rising stars on the undercard, but will cap off the night with two of the UFC's biggest veteran draws, Randy Couture and Mark Coleman, meeting in the main bout. So what's the buzz all about?
The experiential brand the UFC has created for professional fighting is what is the base of the draw. The pay per view and attendance, carefully crafted by UFC head Dana White and his team, is fueled by the free cable TV model with Spike TV and their "Ultimate Fighter" cornerstone show, as well as their World Extreme Cage Fighting cards on VERSUS. Those platforms create the UFC promotional tool for their athletes. The UFC branding is consistent, and unlike many sports, they know how to speak right to their core fan and keep him and her motivated and engaged. When the UFC show goes on the road from their Las Vegas stronghold, they are able to pull in the casual fan to come and see what the excitement is all about. That's how the experience and the spectacle works, and how it will make Las Vegas a huge hub of activity this weekend. From UFC-branded poker events to club after parties, the fan will be interested, engaged and immersed in the UFC lifestyle all weekend long. At least until Sunday night's Super Bowl kickoff.
So with all the buzz and brand building the UFC has done, can the sport of Mixed Martial Arts grow as well? The question is TBD. Californian Scott Coker and his Strikeforce brand have succeeded in a regional draw and in keeping CBS and Showtime interested, but the brand has not dislodged or competed directly with the UFC, and many people feel that in order for the sport to grow you need two vibrant brands to push competition and interest. Now we know that is not true of the NFL, where many competitors have come and gone, so maybe the critical mass needed for growth can be achieved just by the UFC.
The other issue is that MMA is a lifestyle sport at its core, a training sport. That is where the growth is really taking place at the local level, and no one has been able to find an effective way to harness the branding and dollar power of all those participants. Many have tried, even the UFC has now opened their own branded gyms in California, but none have yet succeeded. The conversion of young participants in a lifestyle sport to be followers of the professional side is generational, and in today's world of instant ROI, can be difficult to find. Soccer, with its well organized millions of kids still is making the transition to have those young people watch and follow the professional side after 15 years, and it may take MMA at least that long to do the same.
There is also the issue of violence. While many may argue that MMA is no more violent than football or hockey, the amount of bloody injuries in an average MMA event is still much higher than any other sport, and to be honest, the blood gives MMA its edgy appeal for most of its core. The appeal has also caused some potential sponsors still to not move off the edge and into the sport, for fear of brand damage. Yes that is slowly changing, in great part due to the UFC and their TV partner Spike, but it is a slow conversion, especially in challenging times.
So will MMA be the sport of the future, and will this weekend in Las Vegas be yet another sign that the UFC can compete on the biggest stage and succeed? Maybe. The year 2010 for MMA will be all about realizing potential that has been developing. That includes increased sponsorship, television numbers, continued migration into mainstream programming, and the development of new stars, both in and out of the UFC. If that development is to be realized, then the sport can continue to morph into the mainstream. It will never have to really compete with the big team sports or even NASCAR per se, but the UFC can enter more into the talk for discretionary consumer and brand dollars, and if that continues to happen, then the possibilities are endless.