UFC Grapples for Respect

Major Marketers Show Interest as League Cleans Up Its Act, Grows Audience

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- No wonder the competition is afraid to step into the octagon. Ultimate Fighting is beating up on boxing, drawing blood from professional wrestling and even gaining on Nascar. And the sport's not even legal in all 50 states.
Big Blows: Though the days of eye gouging are gone, UFC is still brutal. Close competitions give it a leg up on boxing. That it's real gives it an edge on wrestling.
Big Blows: Though the days of eye gouging are gone, UFC is still brutal. Close competitions give it a leg up on boxing. That it's real gives it an edge on wrestling.

But Marc Ratner is out to change that as well.

Last year, after serving as the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission for 13 years, Mr. Ratner did something akin to Wyatt Earp joining up with Jesse James: He signed on at Ultimate Fighting Championship as its government-affairs chief.

His mission: Legalize Ultimate Fighting in all 50 states.

'Human cockfighting'
After years of being tarred by politicians ("human cockfighting," Sen. John McCain once called it) and roundly ignored by the nation's sports pages, mixed martial arts is coming to a state near you -- if it hasn't already arrived. Thirty state athletic commissions sanction the sport. And in its push for 50, UFC has not only changed its own rules substantially, it's also changing the rules on your TV set, for rival sports and for the wider culture.

Mr. Ratner has steered a mixed-martial-arts bill through the Illinois legislature, and it awaits the governor's signature. In Michigan, he's gotten one through the House, and the Senate is likely to approve it shortly. Mr. Ratner will spend the coming weeks hopscotching through New York, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.

"I may never have a fight in Iowa or Idaho," said UFC President Dana White, "but I want it legal there, too."

This isn't just about bringing UFC fights to Madison Square Garden -- though that's part of it. It's a strategic, rear-guard action to protect the sport from its barbaric past.

Spike TV deal
UFC's live-events business is small potatoes compared with its TV windfall. The "gate" from a top Las Vegas bout can amount to $4 million, often surpassing the take of a boxing championship. But a single UFC pay-per-view event can yield $20 million in revenue. A deal with Spike TV adds even more to the bottom line.

UFC's founders, Rorie Davie and Rorion Gracie, ran from regulation, operating in a shadowy world of no-holds-barred, bloody fights torn from the pages of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, and nearly bankrupted the business. Senators such as Mr. McCain wanted it banned. Even Mr. Ratner said he was "100% against it."

Under congressional and financial pressure, Mr. White eliminated the most gruesome moves -- eye gouging, groin attacks, head-butting and "fishhooking" (don't ask) -- in order to ink the deal that would catapult the televised fights out of smoky bars and into American living rooms. In 2005, Spike TV began airing "The Ultimate Fighter," a reality series in which 16 aspirant roughnecks compete for a UFC contract. It has proven catnip for young male audiences. So, too, have regularly televised matches.

'New Nascar'
"Those people looking to find the new Nascar have found it," said Brian Diamond, senior VP-sports and specials for Spike TV.

Last April, UFC's 70th televised fight, "Nations Collide," drew more men 18 to 34 than the Nascar Subway Fresh 500 on Fox, the first round of NBA playoffs on ESPN, or Major League Baseball rivalries on Fox. (UFC and Spike are in negotiations to renew and expand their deal; neither party would comment on the talks directly, though both sides confirm a deal is all but sewn up.)
A single UFC pay-per-view event can yield $20 million in revenue.
A single UFC pay-per-view event can yield $20 million in revenue.

The appeal of the UFC's hard-bitten stars is spilling into popular culture. Ex-champ Chuck Liddell has appeared on HBO's "Entourage," while heavyweight champion Randy Couture stars in David Mamet's latest film, "Redbelt," set in the world of mixed martial arts. Mr. White said he's even pitching Spike a lifestyle show about the various personalities in UFC, because, as he puts it, "people love that type of shit."

Meanwhile, other testosterone-rich fare is struggling to keep up. While correlation isn't causality, the stats are nonetheless troubling for UFC competitors such as World Wrestling Entertainment. WWE's "Raw" on USA Network is down 10% among men 18 to 49 compared with last year. By comparison, UFC's "The Ultimate Fighter" saw a 6% increase among men 18 to 49. Previously out-of-reach sponsors such as Scion, Burger King and Coors Brewing have leapt into "The Ultimate Fighter," while Glaceau's Vitaminwater and Budweiser are sponsoring televised fights.

In addition, "UFC has hurt the WWE in pay per view," said Dave Meltzer, editor of the San Jose, Calif.-based Wrestling Observer. Last year, for example, the UFC took in some $223 million from pay-per-view events; WWE, $130 million, Mr. Meltzer said. To prop up its sagging domestic pay per view, WWE has been looking overseas, where it drew a robust $65 million last year.

If WWE is a bit punch-drunk, then professional boxing is definitely on the ropes. But ironically, Mr. White said, "The UFC hasn't hurt boxing; it's helped it."

'Sponsor's paradise'
Don King, reached by phone, said he hadn't slept in three days, busy nailing down a massive fight card: Felix "Tito" Trinidad vs. Roy Jones Jr., two of the modern era's greatest middleweight fighters, both coaxed out of retirement for one last dream bout. He agreed that UFC has saved the sport. "I have nothing but love for Ultimate Fighting," he said.

Mr. King said it's true boxing's become a "dumping ground for sponsors." Outlets such as HBO and Showtime forced fans to watch "cavalier, lackadaisical" fighters who'd take on only lesser opponents because they feared losing their valuable TV contracts, he said.

UFC, Mr. King said, has prodded boxing to offer better, more evenly matched bouts. Showtime in 2006 stopped offering contracts to fighters, instead returning to longtime promoters such as Mr. King to program its nights. HBO is getting away from the practice too.

As a result, Mr. King is busier than ever. Asked which sponsors he's seeking for the Trindad-Jones matchup, Mr. King erupted: "I want the oil companies. Proctor & Gamble. Stouffer's pizzas. I want the Kmarts and the Wal-Marts. This is a sponsor's paradise!"
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