The Fertitta brothers bought the UFC for a mere $2 million back in 2001 and recently sold the company to WME-IMG for $4 billion. They took a company that was basically left for dead and turned it into a global phenomenon. How’d they do it?
Let’s take a look back at the most significant UFC moments on the way to $4 billion.
UFC 1 (1993)
Where it all began. Art Davie created the UFC when was a student of the Gracies in Los Angeles. In today’s MMA the idea is to find the best fighters, but back in the day it was more about determining which combat sport and/or martial art reigned supreme. UFC 1 featured an eight-man tournament with the winner receiving a prize of $50,000. The tournament’s first round looked like this:
- French Savate fighter Gerard Gordeau vs. Sumo wrestler Teila Tuli
- Kickboxer Kevin Rosier vs. Kenpo specialist Zane Frazier
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Royce Gracie vs. Boxer Art Jimmerson
- Shootfighter/Catch wrestler Ken Shamrock vs. Tae Kwon Do black belt Patrick Smith
Gracie won the tournament and put Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on the map in the United States. I highly recommend UFC creator Art Davie’s book Is This Legal? which details the events surrounding the formation of the UFC and all the trials and tribulations of getting the first event on PPV television.
Zuffa Purchases the UFC (2001)
The Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC for $2 million in the hopes of turning around a promotion with much debt, no TV deal, no mainstream press, and some states refusing to sanction the sport. The UFC was even banned from PPV broadcasts when the Fertittas bought the company. There was still plenty of distaste for the sport, which Sen. John McCain famously likened to “human cockfighting.” If you love the UFC you can thank the Fertittas and Dana White. They successfully scaled several unclimbable mountains to get the sport where it is today.
The Ultimate Fighter (2005)
Debt continued to pile up after the Fertittas bought the UFC in 2001. UFC events were consistently doing less than 100,000 buys on PPV, and the company was still in trouble. They took a tremendous risk on reality TV in 2005, paying all costs for the production of a new reality show called The Ultimate Fighter in which fighters would compete in a tournament for a UFC contract. It was the best gamble they ever made. The first season was a ratings success and the finale between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar is widely considered one of the best MMA fights of all-time. It’s the fight that put the UFC on the map and quite possibly saved the promotion from failure. Griffin and Bonnar were elected to the UFC Hall of Fame in 2013 and The Ultimate Fighter just finished its 23rd season. The show has launched the careers of some of the sport’s biggest names and champions.
First UFC Fight on Cable TV (2002)
Remember Fox Sports Net’s The Best Damn Sports Show Period? That was the show that brought us hot sports takes from Tom Arnold, John Salley, Rob Dibble, and even Stephen A. Smith. It was also the show that featured the first UFC fight on cable TV. It was called UFC 37.5, a last-minute event put together specifically for the Fox show. It was oddly named because UFC 37 was in the books and UFC 38 had already been planned and promoted. The main event was Vitor Belfort vs. Chuck Liddell, but that fight was not televised. The only fight televised was the Robbie Lawler vs. Steve Berger match, Lawler’s second fight in the UFC. He knocked out Berger early in the second round. Today, Lawler is the UFC welterweight champion, more than fourteen years after that fight. It was also the beginning of the relationship between the UFC and Fox Sports, one that would greatly expand in the years to come.
UFC 66 – One Million PPV Buys (2006)
UFC 66 featured a rematch between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz for Liddell’s UFC light heavyweight title. It was the first UFC PPV to eclipse one million buys. Liddell and Ortiz also headlined UFC 47, an event that did just over 100,000 PPV buys. It was obvious that the UFC was blowing up, and Chuck Liddell was one of the main catalysts. He had the look, he had the power, and he was finishing the best fighters in the UFC: Randy Couture, Jeremy Horn, Babalu Sobral, and Ortiz. They would not hit the million PPV buy rate again until UFC 91 when Brock Lesnar fought Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight title. It wasn’t all Liddell though. Ortiz was a former champion and he played the heel role better than anyone. The combination helped the UFC finally garner solid mainstream media attention.
UFC 71 – ESPN Goes Full UFC (2007)
After offering little to no coverage of the UFC for years, it was as if ESPN had a profound epiphany. They decided to go full bore on their coverage of UFC 71. They talked live with both Quentin “Rampage” Jackson and Chuck Liddell, and they even aired the weigh-ins live on ESPNEWS. Suddenly the UFC was in ESPN’s spotlight at a time when the baseball season was in full swing and the NBA and NHL Playoffs were underway. ESPNEWS also aired post-fight coverage of the event after Jackson knocked out Liddell and took his title.
Zuffa Acquires Competitors
Sensing that the UFC was ready to explode in popularity, the company made some shrewd acquisitions of their competitors. They bought the WEC in 2006, eventually integrating their fighters into the UFC and introducing lower weight classes. They also purchased ‘select assets’ from the WFA, chief among them the contract and rights to Quentin “Rampage” Jackson. Zuffa bought the legendary PRIDE Fighting Championships in 2007, which gave them a stranglehold on the best MMA fighters in the world. They bought out Strikeforce in 2011, eventually folding those fighters into the UFC, which included Ronda Rousey. The UFC was stockpiling talent, eliminating competitors, and becoming a global brand.
Ronda Rousey and the First UFC Women’s Fight (2013)
The acquisition of Strikeforce gave the UFC the rights to Ronda Rousey, who was making a name for herself as the new face of women’s MMA. A former Olympic judoka, Rousey was brash, defiant, and had been collecting arms in Strikeforce. She won her first six fights by armbar and beat Miesha Tate to become the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion. UFC president Dana White swore he would never have women fighting in the UFC but Rousey changed all that. She was the first woman to ever sign a UFC contract and fought in the first-ever UFC women’s fight, taking on Liz Carmouche at UFC 157 and defending the title that had been transferred from Strikeforce. Even the most casual MMA fan knows what happened since then. Women’s MMA is more popular than ever and Rousey has become a cover girl, actress, endorser and more. She won the first twelve fights of her career, including eight consecutive title defenses before losing her belt to Holly Holm in what was considered one of the bigger upsets in MMA history.
UFC 100 (2009)
UFC 100 remains the king of all UFC PPVs with over 1.6 million buys. It was an amazing event with a stacked card of some of the biggest stars in the UFC, including champions and future Hall of Famers. Brock Lesnar successfully defended his UFC heavyweight title against Frank Mir. Georges St. Pierre defended the welterweight title against Thiago Alves. Dan Henderson laid out Michael Bisping in what many consider the mother of all UFC knockouts. Hall of Famer Mark Coleman, Jon Jones, and Stephan Bonnar also appeared on the card. It was an epic event with mass hype on par with what we just saw with UFC 200.
Bud Light Becomes UFC Sponsor (2008)
The UFC continued to gain steam in 2008. UFC 66 did over a million PPV buys, UFC 71 was plastered all over ESPN and The Ultimate Fighter increased awareness, all of which helped make many new fans. Advertisers certainly took notice and Bud Light jumped on the opportunity to get in business with the UFC. Until then Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor was the “Official Beer of the UFC,” featuring the worst, most-cringeworthy sports commercial in history.
Getting Bud Light as a sponsor was absolutely huge for the UFC. “We’ve got the number one selling beer in the world and one of the top marketers in all of sports as our sponsor. If our TV ratings, pay-per-view buys and venue sell-outs weren’t enough, this definitely cements UFC as a major player in sports business,” Dana White said. The only thing left for a “major player?” Score a broadcast TV deal.
UFC and Fox Agree to Multiyear Broadcast Deal (2011)
The UFC signed a historic deal with Fox in 2011, a deal which would put their brand and product in front of hundreds of millions of viewers. The deal called for four events per year on Fox, six on FX, and The Ultimate Fighter would now also air on FX. Additionally, FUEL TV and Fox Deportes would air original UFC content. Since then the UFC would go on to become the main content provider for FS1, a station that airs UFC events and original programming, including UFC Tonight.
UFC Fight Pass Launch (2013)
Dubbed as “The Netflix of MMA,” UFC Fight Pass launched in 2013 boasting a huge library of MMA fights. Much like they did in acquiring competitor promotions, the UFC began buying up the rights to a slew of MMA, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and kickboxing promotions. Fight Pass now shows exclusive UFC fight and events, as well as original programming like Dana White: Lookin’ For a Fight. Fight Pass also live streams events from regional organizations like the XFO and Titan FC. It’s become a must-have for not only UFC fans but MMA fans around the globe.
Put it all together and it’s the recipe on how to turn a $2 million investment into a $4 billion sale with plenty more to come.