President, Ultimate Fighting Championship
By R. Thomas Umstead, Multichannel News -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/15/2009 2:00:00 AM
Dana White doesn't fight in the ring, but no one is more at home there.
As president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts sports franchise, White helped turn around a once-failing sport into one of the country's fastest-growing ones. In the process, the franchise has rivaled pro boxing and wrestling for the title of king of televised ring sports.
The UFC draws an average of 500,000 to 1 million pay-per-view buys per event, according to White, and more than 2 million viewers per episode on Spike TV through its reality series The Ultimate Fighter and live fight telecasts. Next month, the UFC will host its 100th PPV event.
Not bad for a sport that came under heavy political fire for its intense violence and was taking a financial beating by the late 1990s.
White, a 39-year-old Las Vegas native who grew up a boxing fan, is obsessed with building the UFC into the ultimate ring sport and punching through every media platform to become one of the country's most recognizable and popular sports.
“There's no bigger fan of the UFC than Dana White,” says Brian Diamond, Spike's senior VP of sports and specials. “He loves what he does, and that's the reason for its success.”
White's passion for the fight game dates back to the 1980s when he was an amateur boxer. By 1995, he was the owner of three Las Vegas-based boxing facilities, named The Gym. He later started his own sports-management company, managing pro boxing prospects.
With a desire to push further into the combat sports arena, White, along with childhood friends and Las Vegas casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, became interested in buying the UFC, a franchise started in 1993 by pay-per-view event veteran Robert Meyrowitz. At the time, the UFC allowed athletes to apply boxing, wrestling, grappling, kicking and other martial arts moves inside a referee-supervised eight-sided ring.
The bouts, which initially set out to determine which combat discipline—boxing, karate, jujitsu or wrestling—was the best, quickly drew attention from young male viewers because of the sport's no-holds-barred action. But they also drew the ire of critics who felt the sport was too violent. In 1996, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who referred to it as “human cockfighting,” began a successful lobbying effort to have UFC events barred by every state's athletic commission. By 2000, the sport was virtually banned across the country.
The political backlash led cable operators, who had reaped the revenue benefits of mixed martial arts events in the mid-1990s, to pull all such events off pay-per-view. But White saw potential in the UFC brand. The Fertittas' Zuffa Inc. bought the UFC from Meyrowitz for $2 million in 2001. Over the next three years, the company spent $44 million putting on live events in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and other venues around the country and distributing events via pay-per-view, according to UFC officials.
The UFC's profile got its biggest boost in 2005 with the launch of The Ultimate Fighter, created by prolific reality series producer Craig Piligian. White and the Fertitta brothers spent several million dollars of their own money promoting the first two seasons of the series, and White himself appeared on the show as its host. Eventually The Ultimate Fighter found its audience and has since become Spike's most-watched original series, averaging 1.8 million viewers over its nine-season run.
“We helped really launch a sport because at the beginning [the UFC] was a fringe sport—then we created this TV show and at the end of the day it really launched what is now a huge sport,” Piligian says.
Indeed, through White's perseverance, the UFC is now one of the most popular and recognizable sports franchises in the country. As he puts it: “We consider ourselves one of the major sports leagues—you have the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and us, the UFC.”
Under Dana White’s oversight, the UFC has revolutionized the ring sports business through its creative marketing and promotional efforts, as well as its ability to build followings for the franchise’s top performers.
To protect and build the UFC brand, White makes sure the UFC signs its fighters to exclusive deals so that they don’t appear elsewhere and give any rival a leg up. “We have the best fighters in the world competing to see who is the greatest in each division,” he says.
White also puts a number of live, high-profile fights on Spike TV rather than distribute them exclusively on pay-per-view in an effort to give the sport maximum exposure among viewers.
“What we literally have done is change the fight industry,” he says. “Other promoters are looking at how we run our business, the way we do our productions, how we stack [fight] cards, how we market the fans, and the way we give back to the fans.”
But the UFC’s current level of success isn’t enough for White, whose goal is to have the UFC and its fighters recognized around the world. “When we bought this thing, we had a mind-set that we were building a global sport,” he says. “We could stay right here and be successful in the U.S—we haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of our potential in America—but our ultimate goal is to go out into all these other countries and turn this into a global sport.”
Given what’s he’s already accomplished, it’s hard to bet against White.
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