Often referred to as the fastest growing sport in history, MMA has experienced an unparalleled rise in the dozen years since 2001, when Zuffa, LLC purchased the UFC, revamping the struggling organization into an internationally recognized brand. Available on network television in the US, with broadcasts in 28 different languages in more than 145 countries, the UFC recently signed a distribution deal with Mexico City-based Televisa Networks, cementing the world's premiere mixed martial arts promotion's hold on Latin America.
Global expansion has long been a priority for the UFC, centering their strategy on television broadcasts and programming development, and with the recent announcement of Televisa's 24-hour UFC subscription channel, set to launch in late 2013 in 20 countries around Latin America, the promotion expects to score millions of new Spanish-speaking fans. The UFC is also banking on the Televisa partnership to foster the organic growth of mixed martial arts locally, likely jumpstarting the careers of Central America's future MMA stars. And given their track record of converting TV success into box office triumph, it's difficult to doubt the UFC's expectations.
In 2005, with the company on the verge of folding, Zuffa landed a distribution deal with Spike TV to broadcast the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), the promotion's tentpole reality program. A breakout success, in large part due to an historic bout between Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonnar in the final episode, watched by 3.3 million viewers, The Ultimate Fighter propelled the UFC into the American mainstream, prompting production of 16 additional seasons of the series, which switched to the FX network for its most recent incarnation, inspiring a whole new generation of MMA athletes.
With the TUF model in place, the UFC expanded their reality programming to England and Australia, driving the sport and the brand to new levels of popularity in those countries. The UFC also used the television program to develop fighters, signing dozens of new athletes to their promotional roster. Adding to their successes in the reality television, the UFC brought TUF to Brazil, tapping into the nation's plethora of talent and love of MMA.
Brazil, the only South American country not part of the Televisa deal, and home of the legendary Gracie family, the Brazlian clan that produced inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship winner Royce Gracie, has long since been a hotbed for MMA, as the sport's origins are inexorably linked to Gracie Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Still, the UFC has continued to develop its Brazilian fan base, producing two Portuguese-language seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, the second of which culminates this Saturday, June 8, with UFC on Fuel 10, headlined by local stars Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fabricio Werdum.
While Nogueira previously held the promotion's interim heavyweight title in 2008, the UFC currently has three Brazilian champions: middleweight Anderson Silva, featherweight Jose Aldo, and bantamweight Renan Barao; and the success of these athletes inside the octagon, along with former champion Vitor Belfort, has led the organization to promote six events on Brazilian soil since August 2011, resulting in increasing gate receipts. And with the new Televisa deal in place, the UFC plans to groom a more sophisticated, and die-hard, Latino audience, banking on their most marketable Spanish-speaking fighter, heavyweight titleholder Cain Velasquez, a Mexican-American.
Velasquez, who most recently defended his belt in spectacular fashion by TKOing Antonio "Big Foot" Silva at UFC 160, has long expressed a desire to fight in Mexico, with UFC President Dana White repeatedly echoing similar sentiments. Velasquez's dominance and popularity, combined with the rise of coveted bantamweight Erik Perez, may or may not present the UFC with enough star power to sell out an event in the world's eleventh most-populous nation, but the advent of Televisa's UFC channel, along with a Mexican season of TUF (unconfirmed at this time), will surely prove the catalyst that finally brings Ultimate Fighting to the world's largest Spanish-speaking audience.
Exact dates for the debut of the 24-hour UFC network are still unknown, but until the organization and Televisa release that information, the two have cooperated to broadcast live events on TDN in Mexico and Golden Channel throughout Latin America, offering Latino fans an appetizer of what is to come.
For now, it is clear that the UFC has solidified its place in the Western Hemisphere. But for an organization this ambitious, it is only a matter of time before further expansion throughout Eurasia and Africa.