Beyond cage fights, UFC is also media organization

Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship produces and promotes dozens of mixed martial arts fight spectacles here in Las Vegas and around the planet every year, generating its biggest chunk of revenue by selling pay-per-views to fans hungry to watch the fights.

No surprise there.

But what is less known to the casual MMA and general sports fan is the extent to which UFC runs its own original content production operations, conceiving and executing sophisticated TV network-level digital videos and promotional content that last anywhere from 60 seconds to more than 20 minutes.

UFC is not only about cage fights. It’s also a media organization.

The media operations are a major financial commitment by the MMA organization, headquartered on Sahara Avenue just west of I-15, and sets UFC apart from the business strategies deployed by their counterparts at the National Football League, Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association.

About 85 full-time UFC employees (including 15 at UFC’s international offices) are designated for these in-house production operations duties, which include conceiving, shooting, editing and distributing the content.

The in-house development of these network TV-quality products range from a recent popular and expensive trailer series for superstar Ronda Rousey’s UFC 193 fight on Nov. 14 to a newly green-lit series on the travel adventures of brash UFC President Dana White checking out unknown talent in small venues around the country.

“It’s not one asset fits all,” said Craig Borsari, UFC executive vice president of operations and production.

“We do a lot of work on the storytelling because it will play to specific audiences. … We tend to look for a wide variety of ways to tell a fight story,” Borsari said. “We will create dozens of promotional elements that offer different storytelling.”

Taking control

While the NFL or NBA will often rely on TV broadcast partners to create programming and promotional content to support live events, UFC’s in-house production is consistent with the business style of CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and White, who desire to control and dictate the content of how its fighters are portrayed in the content’s varied forms.

“No one else has the production facilities and resources to execute all the content,” Borsari said.

By handling the production in-house, UFC saves about 35 percent of the costs if it farmed out all the work to outside companies. If UFC hired outside companies to produce the content generated in-house, the bills would amount to millions of dollars every year. UFC believes it’s not only saving money by handling the volume of content in-house but also can save time by working directly on the content, said Marshall Zelaznik, UFC executive vice president and chief content officer.

After UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, bought the MMA fight organization, Fertitta and staffers looked into hiring outside vendors, recalled Jen Wenk, UFC’s former communications director, who now owns a Las Vegas-based PR agency focusing on MMA clients.

“We tried hiring outside the company for branding and advertising, but these companies just didn’t get it — they couldn’t speak the language or understand the MMA fan mentality,” Wenk said.

“It turned out to be a blessing because the UFC evolved into its own media company. Now they’re so good at television production, they can create and distribute promotional programming in just days,” Wenk said. “Without that, they couldn’t support such an active and ever-changing fight schedule.”

The recent Rousey trailers that promoted her recent fight with Holly Holm at UFC 193 are a good example of UFC transcending the conventional promotional fight video. Four different Rousey-Holm fight trailers were created, ranging in length from 60 seconds to 2½ minutes. The longest version has more than 2.3 million views and can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jSKMoXTvaQ.

Little could the trailers predict that Holm would pummel Rousey in Australia eight days ago, knocking out the celebrity champion to take her bantamweight division belt.

UFC worked with its consultant, Digital Domain, a production house with a specialty in movie trailers and special effects, on the Rousey trailer. Rousey’s younger sister and mother played parts in the trailer, which was pitched to Fertitta and White in early August.

Already a movie actress and a magazine cover celebrity, Rousey has such mass, pop-culture appeal that UFC officials supported the trailer’s Oct. 2 debut on Ellen DeGeneres’ Twitter handle with its 50 million followers. Rousey had appeared on DeGeneres’ TV show only a few weeks earlier, and the comedian liked Rousey’s strong, independent persona.

DeGeneres tweeted this message when she debuted the Rousey fight trailer, “Girls can grow up to be anything they want. Just look at my friend, UFC fighter @RondaRousey.”

‘Something really special’

Borsari explained the strategy of popular DeGeneres using her distribution system to debut the Rousey fight trailer: “With Ronda Rousey, we had something really special that resonated with a broader audience beyond the fight audience and even broader than sports fans. It allowed us to be more liberal in how we could promote her for her next event.”

Borsari said it was one of the three most-expensive trailers made by UFC.

“Ellen’s team distributed and launched the promotion through her distribution channel. It was the right audience for us and performed incredibly well,” Borsari said. “A strong video like will take off virally.”

A Holm-focused trailer — one of the four trailers — also had a big name promoting the fight. Former boxing star Oscar De La Hoya released the Holm trailer.

As Zelaznik put it, “Ronda allows us to reach different demos. Ellen reaches a different demo than FS1” sports network.

UFC will crank out anywhere from eight to 12 original spots for each of the annual 13 pay-per-view fight events, Zelaznik said.

While the Rousey fight trailer was designed for universal audience appeal, UFC’s “Embedded” series debuted 1½ years ago as a digital product to stoke the fires of MMA fans in the age 18-25 category who don’t tune into cable TV and to appeal to a demographic that gets its information from the digital world.

A new “Embedded” piece runs daily for each of the seven days leading to a UFC fight event. Each video blog post lasts about six to eight minutes, is geared to the 20-something’s digital world and is distributed through platforms such as White’s Twitter account. Typical scenes include fighters in their hotel rooms talking with their families through their smartphones or training in gyms a few days before their fights.

“It’s relevant, edgy and raw,” Borsari said. “We will break news in must-see programming.”

“Embedded” was conceived out of a conversation between White and Borsari as a timely product to lead up to a fight while attracting the elusive younger viewer. “Embedded,” which premiered with UFC 173 the week of May 24, 2014, has its own presenting sponsor — metroPCS.

The first “Embedded” episode for UFC 193 this month began with who else: Rousey, who chatted about sex lubricant, of all things. Rousey’s lube comments prompted other websites to mention them, and her quips about lube turned into click bait. The Embedded episode can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iixYjUo4AyY.

The UFC web-only Embedded series drew 38 million viewers during the week leading up to UFC 193.

Payoff: Higher pay-per-views

When “Embedded” episodes perform higher, UFC sees higher pay-per-view buys.

While “Embedded” is designed to promote a specific fight event, a new series of 12 episodes called “Dana White Looking for a Fight” follows White and his two pals — high school friend Nick “The Tooth” and former UFC fighter Matt Serra — scouting unknown MMA fighters in backwater towns. The pilot can be seen on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bklcDXRwYfI.

White’s show will be seen exclusively on UFC’s Fight Pass, a digital distribution subscription service that costs $9.99 a month and has 12,000 unique assets in its fight library. The show will have behind-the-scenes trailers on social media such as White’s own Twitter account, Facebook and Instagram to tease the product.

The pilot, which debuted Sept. 29 and has 1.1 million views, shows White going to Lake Charles, La., and Atlanta in search of new talent. It debuted on UFC’s “Fight Pass” website about a week before UFC 192 in Houston on Oct. 3. With more than 20 minutes to fill, the debut was in the position to include boys-will-be-boys scenes such as White and his two pals on a fishing expedition with a guide who used a gun and hatchet to kill an alligator fish.

The fishing trip didn’t go over well for White: “That was enough fishing for me. That was horrifying,” he said.

Then it was off to a popular local hot dog restaurant called Botsky’s for gator and wild boar sausages before checking out fighters, including a pretty boy fighter with spiked hair by the name of Sage Northcutt.

The White pilot has paid off in extra purchases of the UFC Fight Pass product after the 19-year-old Northcutt — who was seen fighting on the White show — was signed as a UFC fighter.

Northcutt made his UFC fight debut a few days after the White pilot debuted on YouTube when Northcutt fought in a preliminary bout at UFC 192 in Houston near his Texas hometown.

UFC showed Northcutt’s fight exclusively on its Fight Pass platform, which experienced an uptick in new subscribers from fans who wanted to see Northcutt’s inaugural UFC fight after he was first featured on White’s pilot.

White will be off to Alaska, New Jersey and Philadelphia to hunt for more MMA talent — scenes that will be included in the next show in January.

“Since Zuffa bought the UFC, they have been teaching themselves how to visually fine-tune the artistry of MMA. No one else was trying to figure this out,” Wenk said. “They did, and now they’re the best at it and among the best producers of sports content in the world.”

Contact reporter Alan Snel at asnel@reviewjournal.com. Find him on Twitter: @BicycleManSnel

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