UFC in big league so investors cash out

Challenges abound but premier MMA group has rid itself of gory past and is worth $5.4b

Brock Lesnar (left) punching New Zealander Mark Hunt during the UFC 200 event in Las Vegas. The American won in a unanimous decision and took home US$2.5 million.
Brock Lesnar (left) punching New Zealander Mark Hunt during the UFC 200 event in Las Vegas. The American won in a unanimous decision and took home US$2.5 million.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • The architects who built mixed martial arts (MMA) into a globally popular sport have ceded control of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

An official release announcing a US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion) sale of the UFC to a group led by talent agency WME-IMG was made on Monday.

It is confirmation that the current ownership group accomplished what it set out to do: mould brawling combat into a vastly lucrative 21st century sport.

This sale is proof, if any was needed, that the organisation is now firmly in the mainstream.

Las Vegas casino magnate brothers Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta III, along with their brother-in-law Blake Sortini, purchased the assets of the UFC in January 2001 for US$2 million.

Former fighter manager Dana White was named president and ran the day-to-day business. Fifteen years later, the contrast is striking.

  • 10.8m

  • Gate receipts in US dollars, or S$14.6 million, for the latest Ultimate Fighting Championship event, UFC 200, in Las Vegas.

Last Saturday, the league's 200th big-ticket event attracted more than 18,000 fans to the T-Mobile Arena in the UFC's home town of Las Vegas; the take from ticket sales alone was US$10.8 million.

With the caveat that the UFC is often criticised by fighters, such as Matt Mitrione, themselves for the vast disparities in its pay scale, it is popular enough that top talent are now able to command high payouts: Brock Lesnar took home a reported US$2.5 million for Saturday's fight.

So, how did UFC transform itself?

Under the stewardship of American sports promotion company Zuffa, named for an Italian word that translates to "scrap" or "fight", UFC shoved its way out of the shadows.

With investment from the Fertittas to rebrand and lay the foundation for its growth, the notorious and limping cage-fighting company soon forged past negative media attention focused on the bloody violence in the Octagon.

There was political opposition from states like New York, which banned the UFC outright until earlier this year, and figures like American senator John McCain, who likened the action to human cockfighting and advocated to have it banned from cable television.

But now UFC had grown palatable enough among sports fans to set the record for the most expensive sale of an organisation in sports history.

Previously, the Los Angeles Clippers fetched the highest amount - US$2 billion in 2014.

In May, Forbes rated American football's Dallas Cowboys as sports' most valuable franchise at US$4 billion, with Spanish football club Real Madrid second at US$3.65 billion.

In recent years, UFC has won acclaim for its determination to give its female stars equal billing with their male counterparts: Ronda Rousey, for example, is arguably as big a draw as fellow fighter Conor McGregor.

And it has a loyal - and young - audience that purchases hundreds of millions of dollars on pay per view per year and are attractive to advertisers.

But, while its gate receipts, merchandise numbers and pay-per-view sales continue to flourish, UFC may be compelled - via federal legislation or the force of will from its top stars - to alter the way it conducts business.

There are still concerns over fighter pay - purses are still well below those of boxing's biggest names.

That background will need to be navigated by the new ownership group, which will also have to work hard to crack open the doors to the lucrative China market.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'UFC in big league so investors cash out'. Print Edition | Subscribe