Dana White remembers a time when mixed martial arts was considered so socially unacceptable it was essentially banned from TV.
© David Sali
UFC president Dana White poses with fan at the Canadian Sponsorship Forum at the Westin
by David Sali
“Porn is on pay-per-view,” the president of the sport’s largest promotion company, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, told an audience at the Westin Hotel on Wednesday. “The UFC was not allowed on pay-per-view. That was the uphill battle we had.”
Speaking at the annual Canadian Sponsorship Forum, the 44-year-old entrepreneur from Las Vegas said MMA had a reputation as a violent “freak show” when he partnered with casino executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta to buy the UFC for $2 million in 2001.
The original owners “weren’t thinking sport, they weren’t thinking regulation, they were thinking, ‘How much money can we make right here, right now?’ ” Mr. White said in his address to a crowd of several hundred delegates at the forum. “We realized that these were real athletes, this is a real sport and could be packaged differently.”
Mr. White said the organization worked with governing authorities to give the sport structure and codified rules, which helped push it further into the mainstream. Still, the UFC failed to catch on with the general public, and the new owners lost tens of millions of dollars in the first couple of years.
Finally, in 2005, Mr. White and Co. took a gamble, offering to pay Spike TV $10 million to cover all the production costs for a UFC reality show, The Ultimate Fighter. The series became an instant hit.
“From the first episode all the way to the (first-season) finale, it was a huge success, and that’s what really launched us,” he said of the popular series, which now airs on Fox Sports 1.
Today, the UFC is reportedly valued at more than $2 billion, bringing in more than half a billion annually from pay-per-view shows alone. The organization just inked a new deal with major sponsor Bud Light and has lucrative contracts with international brands as diverse as Disney and Harley Davidson.
“We’ve come a long way,” Mr. White said. “Once you have those types of sponsors, it’s much easier. It just sort of keeps on rolling.”
But it wasn’t always that way, he reminded the audience, noting he and his partners were once $44 million in the hole before the UFC’s fortunes finally turned.
There’s an important lesson in there for everyone, he said: an overnight success is usually years in the making.
“If you really believe in what you’re doing, you’ve got to dig in,” Mr. White said. “Great success stories start from failure. That’s very rare to hear a story where a business starts and it just takes off. Steve Jobs went through hell before he became the Apple icon. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”
And it’s a “myth” that once a business hits it big, it’s time to relax, he added. In fact, that’s when entrepreneurs have to work hardest to stay on top.
“You don’t slow down,” he said. “You never slow down. You thought you were busy in the beginning? Wait til it gets successful. When you think you can’t handle any more, there’s a lot more.”
The sponsorship forum runs until Friday at the Westin.