Rob Ridley looks at the growth prospects of MMA (mixed martial arts) properties beyond the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). Do recent deals with two heavyweights in the agency business suggest there is space in the market for several major properties in the burgeoning sport?
When you ask most sports fans about MMA, chances are they’ll respond with a certain three letters; such has been the growth of the UFC, it has risen to become the de facto number one player in the sport.
However, the tail end of 2013 saw two leading agencies – IMG Media and Lagardère Unlimited, the latter whose stable includes SPORTFIVE and IEC in Sports – team up with separate MMA organisations in the shape of World Series of Fighting (WSOF) and M-1 Global respectively.
Hillary Mandel, IMG Media’s senior vice-president and head of media for North America, says every major media player in Europe “has put a chip down” in the genre.
“Our research shows [MMA] has a fantastic demographic and a growing audience…[it] sits well in our mix,” she told SportBusiness International. “For us it’s important to have a presence in one of the most important sectors of sport that buyers are looking for. You have to be there.”
“The broadcasters we talk to are generally those on a growth cycle,” adds Guy Horne, managing director of IEC in Sports Switzerland and head of SPORTFIVE’s partnership with M-1 Global. “You can talk to them about football, but it’s good to have something else as well.
“When you look at our current portfolio, including triathlon, women’s tennis and athletics – this takes us into a slightly newer and younger audience and opens up new possibilities, while still using our network.”
Since its creation in 1997, Russian-based M-1 Global has organised more than 150 events across the world and enjoys the patronage of MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko. SPORTFIVE holds the promotion’s global media rights, excluding Russia, for all events on an exclusive basis until the end of 2017, with an option to continue for an additional four years. In addition, SPORTFIVE is providing a range of agency services, including support with TV production.
M-1 already holds a strong relationship with Russian state broadcaster VGTRK, so SPORTFIVE’s remit is to take the brand into the global market, says Horne: “We are unifying one point of contact for global marketing, tightening up the delivery of the product and giving it the stamp and reputation that comes with an international agency.
“M-1 has a good product, but its potential hasn’t been realised. Fedor has millions of fans outside Russia, and by developing a whole digital offering, we can tap into archive footage and, through digital and social media, maximise M-1 Global going into new markets.”
One way SPORTFIVE is looking to expand outside Russia is by producing English-language content on M-1 Global’s YouTube page. Currently, it has around 90,000 followers and enjoys around five million monthly views – however, it is almost exclusively watched in Russia.
Having staged its first event in November 2012 in its home base of Las Vegas, WSOF is very much a fledgling operation compared to M-1. Its three-year deal with IMG, signed in September, enables the agency to globally represent and distribute all media rights for its events. Mandel states the WSOF will form a key part of an “overall push” centred on combat sports in 2014.
“We’re creating a platform, Fight Sport Live, which will curate the best of the best in fight sport,” she says. “We’ll be able to offer broadcasters a consistent blue-chip, well-produced package. It will be a mix of boxing and MMA, which is important because you want to be able to schedule programming that appeals to as broad an audience as possible.”
WSOF, like M-1, has a strong local broadcast partner in the shape of NBC. Having staged the majority of its initial events in the US, with the exception of cards in Canada and Nicaragua, plans are in place to expand to around 10 events for 2014/15 with new shows in Brazil, the UK and eastern Europe.
“Our strategy very much revolves around targeting the markets in which they are going to be ‘local’,” says Mandel. “This is a fledgling property internationally, but we’re very confident that the marketplace is there. To some degree I think that is due to the success that the UFC has had in exposing MMA and legitimising it.”
Looking to the future, Horne states Lagardère Unlimited has a “significant number” of TV deals that will be signed off by April, adding the agency is also accommodating the growing ambitions of fight sports broadcasters.
“I don’t think we’d be involved in this unless we saw it as a global media opportunity,” he adds. “What’s amazing with the channels we’re talking to is that a lot of them are jumping out of their territories. For example, Fight Network Canada, an incumbent broadcast partner, has signed on a platform in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region [on pay-TV operator OSN].”
Both Mandel and Horne believe education and promotion are the key areas that need to be addressed for MMA properties to take the next step and emulate the success of the UFC.
“The biggest challenge is educating the buyer and the consumer,” says Mandel. “We must get the message out into the marketplace that MMA is the genre and UFC is a brand, as is WSOF. We have to make sure that what makes WSOF unique is communicated well in the markets.”
“The UFC has set the benchmark. It has not just raised the game for MMA, but all fight sports,” adds Horne. “The classic Olympic sports are waking up and realising they have to take action in between the Olympic Games. The standards of global entertainment also apply to these sports.
“You’ve got to connect with your fans, have a clear brand image, your fighters need to communicate outside the ring and you must have a story to tell. That’s the key for M-1.”