TUF Logo (Zuffa, LLC)TUF Times: Should ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ Target Untapped Markets? Dale De Souza June 26, 2014 Spotlight Nothing can last forever. Just because a strategy brings a company success when it is first implemented, don’t expect that strategy to be effective, unchanged, for the remainder of the company’s existence. Eventually, things get old. Consumers lose interest. Perhaps the old strategy will work in new markets, but established markets might experience diminishing returns. The UFC knows this all too well. Company head Dana White is often seen as the man who helped save the UFC from its inevitable demise during those years when it was viewed as a barbaric spectacle with no redeeming value and had been banished from cable provider pay-per-view offerings. Much of that argument relates to White’s hand in the development of a little reality show called The Ultimate Fighter. Eighteen seasons of the series, including the groundbreaking first season, have aired in their entirety in the United States, and there have been three seasons in Brazil, one in China and two international seasons, the first featuring a cast representing Australia and the United Kingdom and the second featuring Australia against a team comprised of Canadian fighters. The 19th season of the U.S.-based version of the reality series, with teams coached by former UFC lightweight champions Frankie Edgar and B.J. Penn, is nearing its close. Despite the history of the show and its previous success, however, season 19 has not performed as many anticipated. Not only has it drawn low ratings, but there’s also a lack of incentive to enjoy this season, despite competitors like Dhiego Lima, Cathal Pendred and Ian Stephens. As a result of how the season has transpired, White has gone as far as saying the current U.S. season of TUF is the worst ever, and to date, only season 16 received similar criticism from the head honcho. Is it time for the promotion to realize that TUF is better utilized to open up new markets than to be a long-term focus in an established market? To be blunt, the answer is a resounding yes. The UFC absolutely must tailor TUF to begin breaking ground in untested waters, as it has done in Brazil, Australia and China. The biggest reason why the UFC benefits from this approach revolves around the main goal of TUF, which ultimately pertains to finding the UFC’s next superstar. Sure, White embellishes to extremes when he calls guys “the next Anderson Silva” or heaps praise on them, but this comes as advertised when talking about a man who promotes his roster as “the best fighters in the world.” White, a noted boxing aficionado, understands that combat sports thrive on new blood, and TUF provides the outlet for these prospects to showcase their talents while fighting for a spot in the world’s premier mixed martial arts league. How does any of this concern the U.S. market or the untapped international markets? The UFC utilized TUF in order to open up the U.S. market, and then went on to break into the U.K. market a short time later. Now, the company looks elsewhere, signing a variety of U.K. talent from promotions like Cage Warriors to join stateside talents from the RFA, Legacy FC, CFA and others. At this particular point in time, the promotion no longer needs to mess with U.S. seasons of TUF, outside of its upcoming 20th season, which takes a new approach by aiming to crown a new UFC women’s strawweight champion. Beyond a championship tournament format or a season meant to introduce a new weight class to the UFC, the job of TUF on American shores is complete. The show converted thousands—and possibly even millions—of people into loyal UFC fans. It helped etch those three letters into the brains of the American psyche as synonymous with the sport. It breathed new life into the UFC and changed its course from one of near death to one where the UFC could be considered a global force. Now, though, the U.S. version of the show has even managed to earn a thumbs down from the UFC president. Instead of focusing on continued efforts here in the United States, the UFC ought to focus on seasons like the one that will feature a clash of Latin American countries. One team, coached by UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, represents Mexico against a team of men representing a host of other Latin American countries. The latter team will be headed by Velasquez’s UFC 180 challenger, Fabricio Werdum. The all-Latin America season, in its own respect, represents the UFC’s golden opportunity to make a major impact in an entire subregion, let alone just a country, by helping to grow and cultivate the sport in Latin America. Naturally, with its long and storied history of proud athletes, particularly in combat sports, Mexico itself exists as a major market in the sports world. It makes sense to say that it holds one of the keys to the UFC’s global expansion. Any American promotion that can put on a product that will create demand in Mexico will, in turn, open doors to grow and cultivate its brand and product in countries like Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela, all of which have spawned MMA talent in spurts in recent years but have yet to scratch the surface of potential as major MMA markets. Also, let us consider China for a moment. When the UFC broke into that market with Rich Franklin fighting Cung Le, thoughts of a season of TUF in China were still in the planning stages. Once UFC Fight Pass came to fruition, however, so did TUF China, complete with Le in a role similar to that of White’s normal role on the American seasons. With Fight Pass as an outlet for international events, as well as international seasons of TUF, nothing would stop the UFC from running advertisements letting people know that these countries house some of the best unsung athletes in the sport of MMA. Why would it matter to casual observers if casts of TUF featured better athletes than what some would see on a basketball court or a football field? It all falls back on the difference between how things were during the “Ultimate Fighter Boom,” as many call that period of time from 2005 to 2011 which allowed people to see that two men can put everything on the line and give their all in a good, old-fashioned slugfest, and how they are now, with the UFC being part of the Fox Sports family. During the TUF boom, the UFC didn’t expand beyond the occasional card in England, along with a few cards in Germany and UFC 93 in Ireland. Save for its trips to Canada, the UFC stayed basically within the confines of the U.S. market. Once the UFC inked its deal with Fox, things changed to where the promotion began running more cards and started going into markets that the UFC either hadn’t tapped in a long time or hadn’t tapped at all. With multiple fight cards at a time, though, the willingness of even hardcore fans, all of whom once watched cards without a second thought, began to change. Now, in lieu of just watching any UFC fight card, they elect to engage in hyper-selectiveness when it comes to watching the UFC product. In other words, they’ll pick and choose whatever they feel deserves their attention. And with enough fight cards to overwhelm any fight fan, a program that dedicates only 15 minutes of a typical episode to in-cage action ends up falling farther down the priority viewing queue. Of course, the international cards on Fight Pass remain tailored for the international crowds and not for the U.S. crowd. However, if recent history tells us anything, it’s that the UFC has something going for itself with the international seasons, which, more often than not, prove more exciting than their American counterparts anyway. It’s unlikely that the U.S. seasons, outside of the upcoming strawweight championship season, will benefit the promotion much, but an international season in China or another emerging market could produce that market’s equivalent of Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar. Rather than try to drain what the established markets have left, it would be best for business if the UFC capitalizes on the chance it has to start attracting attention from the markets that have yet to get hit by the fastest-growing sport in the world.