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UFC: Turning the Image Around, Stabilty For the Long Haul

The objective of the Zuffa-led UFC ownership in 2001 was to transform the organization and the sport in engaged in from an “outlaw” activity into something that could reasonably be considered part of mainstream sports and culture. That was not going to be an easy task, but the UFC had a sizable core of followers, and they were indeed a “mainstream” audience for the advertiser as far as the age demographic was concerned, with a heavy concentration in the 18-34 male-oriented range.

There was, of course, an establish element to this mainstream as well, and obviously part of the overall objective was to adopt the rules that had been set forth by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board and which some mixed martial arts promotions had already conducted events under, including some UFC cards (depending on the jurisdiction). At the same time, it was a public relations campaign, because Zuffa not only wanted to let people know about what they were doing and what changes were being implemented, they wanted to use all of it as a major selling point of their product.

With that goal in mind, they obtained opinions from medical experts, including Dr. Margaret Goodman, the chief physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission, who affirmed that there was less of a chance for traumatic injury in mixed martial arts than there was in boxing (so far, the proof has been in the pudding, so to speak, as there are no signs of “punch-drunk” UFC fighters).

Other commission officials chimed in. “In my view, right now it is safer than boxing,” said no less of an authority than Larry Hazzard, a former boxing referee who was heading up New Jersey’s commission. “In an overall sense, it is safer than boxing because there are fewer punches landing to the head.” It was important to have the tacit approval of respected administrative leaders like Hazzard, in order to remove the stigma the sport had taken on previously. It was also critical to win over the minds of opinion-makers from across the country. And the most important of those opinion-makers was in Washington, D.C.

Senator John McCain had been a boogie man, as far as the UFC was concerned. In terms of the critics who had shoved the sport of mixed martial arts into limbo, he was the most visible and the most powerful. if politics and the over-reaching of regulatory bodies was the speed bump, McCain was the symbol of it.

As Zuffa gradually put the new face on its UFC promotion, and the public became more and more aware that the fights were not what they used to be, McCain came around. Finally he made the statement that the UFC people hung their hat on for some time:

“I am pleased that the new owners of the UFC have adopted rules to better protect the safety of the fighters,” he said. “I hope this change signals that this previously barbaric and exploitative style of fighting will evolve into a true sport.”

It did. It was onward and upward from there.


Aside from solving the public relations and regulatory problems that had plagued the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the people from Zuffa did something just as important – to bring financial stability and a winning marketing philosophy to the sport that would take it into the 21st Century on very solid footing. It’s not that the previous owners of the UFC were unstable, but there was a reluctance to invest money heavily as resistance to the events got stronger and stronger.

Zuffa, of course, was headed by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, heirs to the Station Casinos empire. Station Casinos, headquartered in Las Vegas, was the fifth largest entertainment and gaming company in the United States, with over a dozen properties in the Las Vegas market and beyond. While all of the bigger casino companies in Vegas catered to the tourist and medium-to-high roller trade, Station Casinos concentrate on building a loyal following with locals, which was the key to its success, and continues to be, inasmuch as Las Vegas has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. for quite some time.

Shortly after acquiring the UFC, the Fertittas embarked on an investment campaign. Over the course of time, as it was handling the early money losses, they pumped $44 million into the enterprise – expenditure in marketing, advertising, building infrastructure, establishing regulatory liaisons, and improving the quality of the product itself that would pay dividends down the line. Lorenzo Fertitta, who had been vice-chairman of the Nevada commission in 1999, had political connections, which no doubt helped. Few would argue that Lorenzo’s diplomatic nature enabled the UFC to open doors that might have been previously closed to a more confrontational type like Robert Meyrowitz, who sold the organization to him.

Not that political connections alone were the operative factor, but the stamp of approval from states like New Jersey, Nevada and California was crucial, in that they represented three of the leading athletic commissions. New York, which at one time was a battleground for MMA impresarios like Meyrowitz and Donald Zuckerman against the powers-that-be, was no longer as critical, as the commission there had become a joke, infested by political hacks and corruption.

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