How Content Marketing Saved the UFC

Abridged with the author’s permission from Post-Advertising.

The UFC is one of the fastest-growing sports organizations in the world; yet with staunch opposition from certain politicians, lack of licensing in all 50 states, and common public misconceptions, the sport itself is still very niche. The majority of events air only on pay-per-view, and fans rarely have the opportunity to see an event live if they live outside Las Vegas.

Despite all those hurdles, the UFC has grown into a billion-dollar organization with a passionate worldwide fan base. What exactly is fueling all that growth? The UFC’s downright mastery of content marketing. From its outspoken, shoot-from-the-hip president, Dana White, to a companion reality show, the company has wholly embraced content for the long haul.

As “Reality” As It Gets

The sport, properly known as mixed martial arts, had tumultuous beginnings. While the first official event in 1993, the creators of the UFC never intended to establish a series of events, much less a sport. By 2000, sanctioning had taken its toll and the Ultimate Fighting Championship was on the brink of bankruptcy. In January 2001, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, along with Dana White, purchased the UFC for $2 million. The Fertittas and White set out to turn the UFC around.

The road to recovery was long. As recently as 2004, the UFC was still incurring losses ($34 million, to be exact). Only then did the UFC embrace content marketing in earnest. In 2005, the UFC fronted $10 million of the production costs to create a reality show on Spike TV titled The Ultimate Fighter, in which 16 fighters lived together in a house, trained together and competed against each other. The popularity of reality TV and the rare look inside mixed martial arts proved a formula for success, even being credited by White as having saved the UFC. The show now is in its 15th season.

Giving audiences a look behind the scenes is what has made social media and content marketing so successful for brands, particularly sports brands. The UFC has embraced its fans’ desire for “all access” while building excitement about upcoming events by creating a series of video blogs featuring Dana White. The series has produced more than 75 videos, creating nearly 24 hours of free content for little cost (the videos are made with a consumer-based camera with limited editing). All the videos are featured on the UFC’s branded channel, which has been viewed more than 323 million times and boasts more than 373,000 subscribers.

Long Form Content

Leading up to each major card, the UFC produces a show titled UFC Primetime which documents the two main-event fighters during their training camp and creates a three-episode series about who the fighters really are. This type of long-form content has essentially created a 90-minute advertisement (available on the FX channel and on the UFC’s YouTube channel) for the fight. When a fan has invested that much time getting to know the fighters, it’s hard to not know how the story ends.

Leading the Twitter Scorecards

Social media has been a game changer for sports, of course, but many organizations are still leery of their players’ using the platforms. Meanwhile, White has created an incentive-based social-media program that, every quarter, monetarily rewards fighters who made the most of social media. The UFC’s own Twitter account boasts 613,000 followers, but that’s nothing compared with White’s 2,000,000-plus. White is extremely active on Twitter and is known for spending time responding individually to fans and foes alike.

Fights on Facebook

Besides regularly publishing videos, pictures, articles and more to 8 million–plus fans, the UFC is determined to squeeze every bit of functionality out of Facebook. It has made social-media history by streaming preliminary fights (those not shown on the live card, even on pay-per-view) free (though at a steep cost to the UFC), directly on its Facebook page. The approach has secured hundreds of thousands of additional likes and created an entire other marketing avenue for its matches.

Jon Thomas is Communications Director for Story Worldwide and can be followed on Twitter @Story_Jon.

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