UFC: New Owners, Turning the Corner, Speeding Up The Game
It is important to note a few of the critical factors in the growth of the UFC. One of them was the utilization of channels open to it through the internet. The online experience fit in very well with their target demographic, which tended to be younger, more techno-savvy, more aggressive and more brand-loyal, which served to create a “viral” impact that Dana White was going to maximize.
There was always a heavy “underground” devoted to mixed martial arts action, but the potential for explosion was there. More and more websites dedicated to MMA and the UFC upload themselves every day, and with the rapid emergence of the blogosphere, every fan with an opinion can be heard and be a “pundit.” this results in millions and millions of pages with the tag “UFC” that appear on the major search engines.
Something that can not be discounted about the turnaround of the UFC is that it was engineered by people like the Fertittas and White, who had not only participated in mixed martial arts activity to some degree, but were also avid fans of the sport. That differentiated them from their predecessors. Under the Bob Meyrowitz regime, especially after the Gracie family pulled out, the operators of the UFC regarded it as primarily a business proposition. To White and the Fertittas, it was a passion; a labor of love.
Yet another growth factor was re-entering the home video market. The previous UFC owner, Meyrowitz, had signed away the UFC’s home video deal and the new owners, had to free the company from that kind of entanglement. The internet offered a golden opportunity for the merchandising of DVD’s of the live events, which could contain features and footage that was not necessarily available to those watching on pay-per-view. The UFC was building a very powerful web presence, and sales of UFC-related items, including the DVD’s, was going to be a major part of the business model.
The first show under new management – UFC XXX (30) drew about 3000 paying customers into the Taj Mahal. The company returned to the Taj Mahal again for UFC 31, then took another leap forward in its “battle for hearts and minds.” For UFC 32, Zuffa stayed in New Jersey but this time inched closer to the big city. The card was slated for the Meadowlands Arena, home to the New Jersey Nets and New Jersey Devils and just a stone’s throw away from Manhattan.
It became a pivotal moment in the UFC’s history. The company decided to make it something of a showcase. It offered an opportunity to garner a lot of exposure in the New York metropolitan area, bringing in decision-makers from the media capital of the world, not to mention representatives from the cable systems that were so important in terms of pay-per-view commerce, and the sponsors who the UFC hoped to partner with.
Dana White, in an interview with Entrepreneur Magazine, revealed that Zuffa LLC lost $2.4 million on that promotion, but it may have been the best investment they ever made. Of course, it could have gone the other way, as Dana understands: “The place was packed, the music was rockin’, and the fights were great that night,” he said in the interview. “Was it the right decision? Look where we are today. Had it not worked, you would have said we burned $2 million that night, and it didn’t make a difference.”
But it DID indeed work. The UFC, in its glory, was on display that evening, and it left an indelible impression.
SPEEDING UP THE GAME
UFC matches could have the tendency to get very slow and boring at times. When the fighters were in a “stand-up” position, that was fine, because they were throwing punches and/or kicks at each other, or even making lunges at each other in effort to take the fight to the ground.
But once the fighters got on the ground, even though things might be more artistic, due to the skill level of the wrestlers and grapplers involved, a stalemate often developed, and they had a habit of staying in the same position for a while, or at least looking that way.
Something had to be done about it.
On October 31, 2001, the UFC announced a rules adjustment that was squarely aimed at this problem. Previously the referee had played a somewhat limited role in the conduct of the match; he could interrupt the fight only to call a fighter for a foul or to come to the rescue of a fighter who was hopelessly injured and most likely unable to continue. But now the referee would be empowered to warn competitors to break out of their position if it is determined they were indeed in a stalemate. If they failed to do so following the warning, the referee could step in and order such a break, mandating that the bout resume from a neutral position. These were decisions totally made on the basis of the judgment of the official, and in this way it was not unlike what a boxing referee might do.
The new rules change was going to take effect for the UFC show (UFC 34) that was to take place just two days later (November 2) in Las Vegas. This brought back memories of the old days, when it was not all that unusual for a change in the rules to be made at the last minute – a happenstance that sometimes resulted in fighters threatening to pull out of matches.
Of course, within those parameters there was not a governing jurisdiction to worry about, so they were flying by the seat of their pants. But here there was. And as with most of the rules adjustments the UFC made, this was done with the prior approval of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
“These rules changes are being implemented to make UFC matches more fan friendly and to speed up the action,” said Marc Ratner, who was the executive director of the Nevada commission at the time. It did have that effect. Not only did stalemates on the ground take away from the action when things are not moving. It made it even more difficult for the live spectator to see what was going on.
This change represented another step forward for the UFC.