UFC 1 took place in 1993 in Denver, and next month, the UFC will commemorate that milestone at UFC 167, which takes place on November 16th at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Ahead of that 20th anniversary show, the UFC announced on Saturday that it will send many of its star fighters out across North America over 20 days leading up to the big night- Like an Olympic Torch relay, with UFC fighters. As part of this, UFC plan to host a ‘social media scavenger hunt’, giving fans the chance to win a host of prizes. This type of fan engagement has become commonplace with the UFC and platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have been major factors in helping the sport reach a mass audience.
The rise in popularity of mixed martial arts over the last 15 years is nothing short of a phenomenon, given how little exposure the sport received in its early stages, with 36 states (including New York) banning the sport. UFC events now attract sell out crowds in 60,000-seater stadiums and sell millions of pay-per-view subscriptions. A large part of this success comes down to its aggressive social media strategy, with platforms such as Facebook and Twitter aiding its mainstream development. Much of this social media development comes directly from outspoken UFC president, Dana White, who is very vocal on Twitter, illustrated by the fact that he has over 2.5 million followers, in comparison to FIFA president Sepp Blatter for example, who has less than 500,000. Being honest has served White well and whilst many other sports would frown upon criticism of athletes and officials (a-la Sepp Blatter on Cristiano Ronaldo), fans share many of the UFC president’s opinions, and he is seen as something of a refreshing figure in the world of sport. One of the most innovative uses of social media by the company came in 2011 when a Twitter bonus program was put in place, offering quarterly cash rewards to the fighters who most effectively added followers, tweeted creatively and engaged fans. ”We want to reach people where they want to spend time and our fans love it” wrote Kristin Adams, former UFC social media manager.
“Social media is very important to us moving forward..You can reach anyone, anywhere in the world and we have fans everywhere. The more we grow and go international, the more people we’re going to want to connect with and keep up-to-date on the cool stuff going on with UFC.”
Finally, Dana White and the UFC not only support social media interaction, they embrace it. The flexibility of the sport means that White takes notice of the buzz on social media, and can arrange fights that will maximise ratings. For example, UFC 167 will feature Georges St-Pierre vs Johny Hendricks as its main event, the former (the Welterweight champion) being a fan favourite with one of the highest number of Twitter followers (less than 860,000), as well Rashad Evans vs Chael Sonnen, both controversial and socially active. This has allowed the fight to almost ‘sell itself’, sparking debate and excitement through social media, as has been the case throughout the UFC’s rise in popularity. The UFC has built a product from the ground up, growing its viewership by engaging and listening to those fans. Now, in addition to pay-per-view, fight nights have also been broadcast on FOX, resulting in more exposure and more revenue. However, nothing has changed in terms of the social media strategy. White still speaks with his same voice he always had, his fighters are real people and his audience, even newer fans, feel that connection. Would the UFC be where it is without social media? From the mouth of UFC President Dana White himself: ”I don’t know..but it would be much harder.”
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