Tito Ortiz has fought many tough title fights in one of this country’s fastest growing sports, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He’s a former champion.
But tentatively next month he’ll step into the ring to fight one of his most difficult opponents: Dana White.
White is not your typical UFC combatant. In fact, he’s not a fighter at all. But he’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep Ortiz in the ring. Even if it means taking a few punches to the head and kicks to the body. Ortiz asked for the hand-to-hand combat — and had it written into his contract.
White signed that contract. You see, White is the president of the UFC, a multimillion-dollar mixed martial arts sports franchise that’s very quickly challenging pro boxing and wrestling for the title of king of televised ring sports.
In the 1990s, such politicians as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) denounced the sport for its violence. In less than six years, though, White and his partners — childhood friends and Las Vegas casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta — have turned around a once-failing sport that combines the combat disciplines of karate, jujitsu, boxing and wrestling in one ring, and where blows to the groin were once permitted.
In its place, they have created a franchise where elbows are still thrown, but rules exist. It’s a franchise that is drawing an average of 350,000 to 400,000 pay-per-view buys per event and more than 2 million viewers per episode on Spike TV, through its reality series The Ultimate Fighter and live fight telecasts.
It is a popularity White is willing to fight for, even if that means taking a few professionally placed shots from one of his employees.
That upward spiral can be pinned to the energetic White, said industry executives such as Rob Jacobson, president of pay-per-view and video-on-demand programming distributor In Demand.
White, a 37-year-old Las Vegas native who grew up a boxing fan, is now obsessed with building the UFC into the ultimate ring sport. “If there were 400 days in the year, Dana would spend every day working on the UFC,” said Spike TV senior vice president of sports and specials Brian Diamond. “This is his life’s blood and he’s very passionate about it.”
That passion has made White’s drive to build UFC into a crusade. He possesses the informal persona and unyielding enthusiasm for his sport reminiscent of another famous sports entrepreneur: Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks.
And White said that over the next five years, UFC will punch through every conceivable media platform from the TV to the computer to the handheld screen in its quest to become one of the country’s most recognizable and popular sports.
His crusade already has landed these victories:
Fox Stations Group: Syndication company Trifecta Entertainment will distribute the UFC’s upcoming UFC Wired series to Fox-owned MyNetworkTV stations in markets such as New York and Los Angeles.
Versus: Zuffa LLC, which owns UFC, last month tapped the Comcast-owned sports and outdoors channel to telecast a sister franchise in mixed martial arts, World Extreme Cagefighting.
Spike TV: The fifth season of UFC’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter will debut on Spike April 5. The first four seasons of the skein — a reality show in which UFC hopefuls battle each other for a spot in a live event — has averaged a cumulative 1.9 million viewers since its 2005 launch.
Internet: UFC offers a Web site through which fans can buy individual fights for $1.99 apiece or sign up for one of two subscription packages — $14.99 a month for unlimited downloads, or $59.99 for a six-month unlimited download subscription. The site generates 4.5 unique million unique viewers a month, according to the company.
Pay per view: UFC will offer as many as 14 pay-per-view events in 2007. Its Dec. 30 PPV event may outdraw the 875,000 buys for the May 6 Oscar De La Hoya-Ricardo Mayorga junior middle weight fight — the industry’s biggest event of the year — when all the figures are in.
UFC could even land on the premium channel that made pay-per-view boxing matches into big, satellite-delivered nationwide events: HBO. Executives confirmed that the Time Warner subsidiary is talking to UFC about televising live fights and other programming related to the sport.
Not bad for a guy who, along with the Fertitta brothers — who own several mid-sized Las Vegas casinos under the Station Casinos moniker — paid $2 million for the UFC franchise rights in 2001.
How much is the UFC worth? Don’t ask White. He is fiercely protective of his finances, to the point where he won’t even divulge the total number of spectators who watched his most successful pay-per-view events. He even refused to comment further on a 2005 Las Vegas Business Press story which quoted him as saying the business has “increased 20 times” since buying the franchise.
His philosophy: the extent of the UFC’s success is no one else’s business.
“I like the fact that people don’t know and people are interested,” he said. “We’re doing very, very well. The fighters are doing well, but I don’t think everyone needs to know how well.”
That’s tough talk from White, but what would you expect from someone whose journey into combat sports began as an amateur boxer in the 1980s?
His business acumen was nurtured through the sweet science: by 1995, he was the owner of three Las Vegas-based boxing facilities, named The Gym. White later started his own sports-management company, managing pro boxing prospects.
It was during his days managing boxers that he met a UFC wrestler named John Lewis while eating lunch at the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas. “My partner Frank and I always wanted to learn submission fighting [placing a painful hold on your opponent to make him quit], so we went over to him and started talking to him,” White said.
White and the Fertitta brothers eventually started to taking jujitsu lessons in Vegas with Lewis, at which point White said he became “totally addicted” to martial arts.
White soon became interested in buying the UFC, a franchise which allows athletes to apply boxing, wrestling, grappling, kicking and other martial-arts moves inside a referee-supervised eight-sided ring. He soon found out that UFC was taking a financial beating of its own.
The UFC was started in 1993 by pay-per-view event veteran Robert Meyrowitz, whose Semaphore Entertainment Group produced music shows featuring such stars as New Kids on the Block and The Who.
Meyrowitz initially wanted to answer the question as to which combat discipline — boxing, karate, jujitsu, wrestling — was the best. But bouts that combined those disciplines in one ring quickly drew attention from viewers — especially young teenage boys — because of the sport’s unsupervised, no-holds barred action. Very little was outlawed during these events: blood flowed easily as fighters were allowed to deliver elbow smashes, roundhouse kicks, choke holds, and kicks to opponents’ groins.
The often-gory action, along with aggressive marketing by Meyrowitz and other mixed-martial arts promoters, drew the ire of politicians — particularly McCain, a big boxing fan who once referred to the UFC as human cockfighting.
In 1996, McCain began a successful lobbying effort to have the UFC 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.
The mixed martial arts genre “was not only dead and bankrupt; it had a ton of baggage and misconceptions. It wasn’t even allowed on PPV, let alone TV,” said White. “The way the sport was, no smart businessman would have ever bought this company. It made no sense.”
Except to White and his business partners.
SPIKE IN VIEWERS
After buying the UFC name and octagonal ring from Meyrowitz for $2 million, White said Zuffa sat down with two leading athletic commissions — those of New Jersey and Nevada — to iron out a unified set of rules for UFC competition that would be acceptable to all state organizations.
Moves such as eye-gouging and kicks to the crotch were outlawed. Weight classes were implemented. The referees received complete discretion to stop a fight. Currently, 22 states now allow mixed martial arts fighting, including casino and gambling hotbeds New Jersey and Nevada.
“We wanted to get a unified set of rules,” White said. “Then we had to get out on the road and start educating people about this thing — what it’s all about and who these athletes are.”
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 PPV. But it wasn’t until the network launched the Spike TV reality series The Ultimate Fighter in 2005 that the UFC’s awareness really took off.
At the time both the network and the UFC were trying to find their voice and their audience. Two years earlier, Spike had rebranded itself as a network aimed at men. It was looking to find a way to draw attention from young men in significant numbers.
Initially given little on-air support from Spike, White and the Fretitta brothers spent several million dollars of their personal money promoting the first two seasons of the competition and reality series. Spike TV executive vice president and general manager Kevin Kay recently described the concept as “16 guys living in a house where they eat, sleep, train and eventually beat the crap out of each other.”
White and the Fertittas bought outdoor billboards across the country touting the show; sent thousands of e-mail blasts to UFC fans; and purchased commercial time for the series in such male-oriented shows as UPN’s WWE SmackDown!, according to the UFC.
White even appears in the series: He initially starred as a matchmaker and a go-between to pacify conflicts between fighters. He eventually became the show’s host.
It also helped that for its first season, the show’s lead-in was World Wrestling Entertainment’s highly-rated, male-targeted flagship series Monday Night Raw. Even later that year, after WWE left Spike for USA Network in October, Ultimate Fighter was able to stand on its own as Spike’s most-watched original series.
In the season that ended this past November, Ultimate Fighter averaged 1.7 million total viewers and more than half a million men 18 to 34, easily the network’s best performing show in that demographic group, according to Spike.
Spike’s coverage of live UFC fights has also drawn its share of young viewers. The network’s Oct. 10 UFC fight card telecast drew 4.2 million viewers — on par with popular fictional fare such as Nip/Tuck, FX’s cosmetic-surgery series.
More impressive for the network, the event drew 1.6 million men 18 to 34 — 500,000 more than broadcast network Fox’s telecast of that day’s Detroit Tigers-Oakland Athletics American League Championship Series baseball game.
“It’s been great working with them to get them to grow the sport and it’s benefited us as well,” said Spike’s Diamond.
In Demand’s Jacobson says the ceiling hasn’t been hit.
“The ratings have consistently been strong on Spike, the buys for their events have grown consistently year over year, so who’s to say we’re at the plateau?” Jacobson said. “Everything seems very encouraging.”
SLATE OF CHALLENGERS
So encouraging, the franchise will have to endure the challenge of other companies trying to capitalize on its success.
Showtime Networks, Versus and Fox Sports Net have all jumped into the ring by aligning themselves with competing mixed-martial arts franchises.
Citing the sport as a business it couldn’t ignore, Showtime — a major player in the pro boxing arena — was set to distribute its first event Feb. 10 from the newly-created Elite Xtreme Combat outfit.
Along with airing World Extreme Cagefighting, Versus added a second mixed arts franchise last month, dubbed The World Combat League, to its schedule of National Hockey League games and Professional Bull Riders tournaments.
News Corp. siblings Fox Sports Net and MyNetworkTV will try to wrestle fans away from the UFC beginning in March, with the International Fight League, which is based on MMA team competition. (See story on page 15.)
“The UFC is very good at what they do, but there’s plenty of room to be challenged,” said FSN executive vice president of programming and production George Greenberg.
White scoffs at any talk of competition. He said these “Johnny come latelys” are just in the ring because of the UFC’s success and not because of the love for the sport.
“All these people that are getting involved now, but where were they five years ago?” he asked. “Now they see that there’s money in it, all these boxing guys and network executives are coming out of the woodwork, because they think there’s money.”
Nevertheless, White is protecting his turf. 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 on it.
In fact, White will do almost anything to keep his fighters within the UFC camp … even if it ultimately means becoming a fighter himself.
It was Ortiz who put a clause in his contract that required White to meet him in the ring for a three-round exhibition match. The bout takes place next month.
UFC officials would not comment on the matter, but the event — which is supposed to adhere to traditional boxing rules — might air on Spike or even as part of a future UFC pay-per-view event.
It’s just another example of how far White will go to strike a blow for the UFC.