A King In the Ring6/13/2009 2:00 AM Eastern
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 promotion, White helped transform a once-failing sports franchise into one of this country's fastest-growing ones. In the process, UFC has rivaled pro boxing and wrestling for the title of king of televised ring sports.
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.
Earlier this year, UFC also entered the video-on-demand arena, teaming with TVN Entertainment to launch UFC On Demand.
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 UFC into the ultimate ring sport and punching through every media platform to make the enterprise one of the country's most recognizable and popular sports.
“There's no bigger fan of the UFC than Dana White,” said Spike TV senior vice president of sports and specials Brian Diamond. “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 his childhood friends, 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, 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 it also drew the ire of critics who felt the sport was too violent. In 1996, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who referred to UFC as human cockfighting, began a successful lobbying effort to have its events barred by every state 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 Fertitta brothers' Zuffa LLC bought UFC from Meyrowitz for $2 million in 2001, and over the next three years, spent $44 million putting on live events in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and other venues around the country and distributing events via PPV, according to UFC officials.
UFC's profile got its biggest boost in 2005 with the launch of the Spike TV reality series The Ultimate Fighter.
The series — which pits up-and-coming UFC fighters who live under one roof against one another in a week-to-week elimination tournament — was initially given little on-air support from Spike. White and the Fertitta brothers spent several millions of dollars of their own money to promote the first two seasons of the series, and White himself appeared on the show as its host.
Eventually Ultimate Fighter found its audience and has 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,” said Craig Piligian, whose production company Pilgrim Films and TV produces Ultimate Fighter.
Indeed, through White's perseverance, the UFC is now one of the most popular and recognizable sports franchises in the country. “We consider ourselves one of the major sports leagues — you have the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and us, the UFC,” White said. “We have the best fighters in the world competing to see who is the greatest in each division.”
Under 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 UFC brand, White makes sure the company signs its fighters to exclusive deals so that they don't appear elsewhere, giving rivals a leg up. He also puts a number of live, high-profile fights on Spike TV, rather than rely exclusively on PPV distribution, in an effort to maximize the sport's exposure to viewers.
“What we literally have done is change the fight industry,” he said. “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 company and its fighters recognized around the world.
“When we bought this thing, we had a mindset that we were building a global sport,” White said. “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.