Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White, long dissatisfied with life on the fringe, has now set his sights on the world.
What is perhaps the fastest-growing sports franchise in the country -- mixed martial arts knocked both boxing and World Wrestling Entertainment from atop the pay-per-view perches in 2006 -- will undergo a significant test of its popularity next month when the league makes its first foray into broadcast syndication with the debut of the series "UFC Wired." It will also finalize a deal with HBO for a series of fights, and counts among its projects the return of Spike TV's hit "The Ultimate Fighter" and two upcoming PPV-style fight cards, one in London Sept. 8 and the other in Anaheim, Calif., Sept. 22.
"Our strategy right now is global," Mr. White said. "We're at a place in the U.S. where it's going to keep getting bigger and bigger as our fan base grows. I think that will especially be true once our syndicated series launches. But we are now in 150 countries with a powerful product that everyone understands. What we want to do now is take our events to these markets and create the first global pay-per-view with people from all over the world buying the fight."
With "UFC 75: Champion vs. Champion" taking place in London Sept. 8, the company is opening doors to do that. In addition, Mr. White said plans are in the works to take the UFC series "Live Event" on a world tour, with four stops in the U.K. and additional stops in continental Europe, Australia, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Canada.
"We have only started to tap the Hispanic market," he said. "That's the group that has kept boxing alive these past few years because they love watching fights. So we have big plans to get South America involved over the next few years."
The UFC, a private company owned by U.S. sports promotion firm Zuffa, broke the 1 million PPV-buy mark last December for the first time ever, according to analysts, on the strength of a match featuring Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz. One report said the company had a total gross PPV take of nearly $223 million in 2006, more than boxing or the WWE has ever earned. Some estimates place the value of the privately held company around $1 billion, although others think it is closer to $750 million.
Set to boost company revenue in 2008 will be the launch of UFC's first videogame since the beginning of the decade, which is expected to be released in the early part of the year.
With the success of the UFC, a slew of other MMA leagues have hit the circuit, including the International Fight League, which airs on MyNetwork TV in prime time (and boosted the network's ratings, particularly among men 18 to 49, a demographic that grew from a 0.2 to a 0.8 Nielsen Media Research rating in its first month), and BoDog fights.
However, the UFC has become known as the staple of the sport, particularly after acquiring rival Pride Fighting Championships earlier in the year. That acquisition set up the London PPV bout, which pits UFC heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson against Pride champion Dan Henderson in a title unification match.
The Sept. 22 PPV event in Anaheim will be headlined by a bout between Mr. Liddell and Keith Jardine.
"They had really good timing," said Deana Myers, senior analyst at research firm Kagan. "I think not only was the public tired of the WWE, but the UFC has good product that was able to capture audiences."
She noted that a lot of work would have to be done before the UFC would be able to pull off worldwide PPV events, including pinning down international platforms.
One deal Mr. White says won't take long to complete is the UFC's programming agreement with HBO, noting, "It will happen." He said the HBO series of fights would be used to complement programming on Spike (which has exclusivity on the UFC on basic cable) and the PPV events.
"What we're doing is going to get guys started on 'The Ultimate Fighter,' where they can then progress to a show like 'UFC Fight Night' before landing on HBO. HBO would then give them the opportunity for a title shot on PPV," he said.
"The Ultimate Fighter" marked a milestone for both the UFC and Spike, with airings of the series beating both baseball and National Basketball Association games on a regular basis. In fact, the three-hour finale of the fifth season in June won the night among men 18 to 34 and men 18 to 49 on broadcast and cable.
"The power of television has been simply incredible for this brand," said Brian J. Diamond, senior VP of sports and specials at Spike TV. "When we debuted 'The Ultimate Fighter' in 2005, we were able to bring in not only hard-core fans but casual sports fans as well as fans of reality. The whole sport kind of took off from there, and it's been a fantastic relationship for both parties."
Mr. Diamond noted that the channel is in talks to extend its agreement with the UFC, which expires in 2008, and said there have been internal discussions to expand Spike's UFC programming -- which can vary from five to seven events depending on the month -- in new ways.
The launch of syndicated series "UFC Wired" from Trifecta Entertainment this fall marks the league's first foray into broadcast television. The series is currently cleared in more than 85 percent of the country, with many major-market stations carrying it in early access or prime time, according to Trifecta President Hank Cohen.
"Mixed martial arts are becoming such an important mainstream sport, not only to fans but to television, it makes sense the next evolution of the brand is to be seen in broadcast," Mr. Cohen said. "Right now they are putting the little things in the show that they really didn't have to do, and that speaks to the quality of the organization."
"UFC Wired" will feature the best bouts from the history of the UFC as a measure to introduce the sport and its fighters to the mainstream public. The series will be hosted by former "Fear Factor" host Joe Rogan, who emcees UFC fare on pay-per-view.
"These are going to be fights that millions of people have never seen before," Mr. White said. "By learning about the sport as well as about our fighters, people are going to be interested in the next fight. I like to think that that's one way we can reintroduce ourselves to the public, who will surely learn to love this sport as much as I do."