The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the largest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion company in the world. Based in Las Vegas, Nevada, UFC has produced more than 500 events worldwide to date. As with many sports in 2020, UFC had its share of hard decisions to make. With live programming as a core revenue stream and broadcast obligations to fulfill, UFC had to find innovative ways to keep fans engaged.
David Shaw, SVP of International and Content manages the global strategy for UFC, including event management, event production and distribution to broadcasters, TV and Pay-Per View deals, and more. Here, he shared the challenges and opportunities that 2020 brought for UFC, as well as the content strategies that captured the audience's attention and loyalty, even under drastically different circumstances.
Guiding new modes of operation with established brand values
Under President Dana White’s leadership, UFC is a brand with strong established values. When regulations put a pause on live events, UFC turned to their core maxims to adapt quickly. Because health & safety principles are second nature, the company was able to envision new protocols to protect fans, fighters, and their staff.
With all the variables surrounding live events meticulously considered and under control, location was a major factor in UFC’s success model. The Apex, a newly built production facility meant for live studio productions became central to the operational plan, along with social distancing measures, testing protocols, and reduced staffing. David Shaw offered a glimpse into the process:
"We have the benefit of being a nimble team with a long history of considering athlete and operational safety. This was, in a sense, an extension of what our operations teams live and breathe every day. We felt confident that we had built a comprehensive and robust plan that we could put into practice."
With the plan in place, UFC was set to tackle the next challenge: getting fans to experience UFC remotely.
Offering meaningful content to stay true to the experience
As fans and followers consume more and more content at home, UFC viewership reached historic highs. As fans were in a different state than normal, the team focused on delivering meaningful and comprehensive content to their fans when they needed it the most. "It was a priority for us to tap into and leverage social in this way," said David.
UFC resurrected archival content that would resonate in a campaign called Ultimate Fighter Month. Ultimate Fighter Month highlighted key seasons and eras in UFC history, underscoring the true value of their catalogue, tailored to audiences at home. David further explained how UFC’s social media strategy rose to prominence in this distanced world.
"We felt we were losing a crucial connection point, which was the live audience. Social media had to step up and fill the gap for our fanbase, irrespective of where they were."
Campaigns like Ultimate Fighter Month expanded UFC’s social content offering, but there was still an absence well-felt in the community: the unmatched energy of a live event. To keep that excitement alive amid changing regulations and new travel restrictions, UFC had to make their content plans even more flexible.
"The nature of the social media world is that you’re always on. That didn’t change, but our content and promotional plans changed all the time, even more so than normal," said David.
UFC’s goal was to offer a new digital experience that was akin to being in an arena. And while not quite the same, they did accomplish something big.
"With everyone remote, it was important for us to maintain authenticity that is so easily identifiable with the UFC world. Social played a huge role, not only in the consistent and increased delivery of content, but it also allowed us to maintain a good connection point with our audiences all around the world in meaningful ways. Tuning into their needs using Emplifi’s data insights, we could focus on developing the shows that were really working," said David.
The shows that could give viewers back the sense of the true fan experience came to the forefront.
Fight Island, established as a “safe zone” for fighters during events, kept fans engaged and guessing about the next location
Quick Hits with Laura Sanko featured in-arena interviews as fighters walk out
Green Room’s backstage interviewers kept fans hyped up as they watched from home
Bringing fans closer to fighters with global and local strategies
One of the main drivers of engagement for UFC at this time? The fighters themselves, and the cultural impact their stories have across the globe. Social media made it possible for fans to get a personal look into the lives of athletes and connect in a more authentic way.
"The roots of our sport originate in different communities all over the world. And the reach of MMA today allows us to connect with different people globally. Our true success is because of the athletes. There’s nothing like having a local star to build interest in a specific region," said David.
UFC’s content strategy uses the power of worldwide reach to deliver market-specific content experiences that will really resonate. David shared how in every region, there’s the balance of adhering to the brand principles and storyline guidelines dictated by the production team, but there is so much to be gained in regional content too.
"There’s a lot of autonomy given to our regional teams to adapt content in such a way that’s culturally appropriate for the audience in that particular region. That’s something we are becoming more in tune with and prioritizing more because one size does not fit all. In order for us to be as successful as we can be, it’s incumbent on us to localize our content offering to ensure we can reach the largest audience possible."
Turning challenges into takeaways for the future
With the give and take of global and local content strategies working in parallel, one thing is never compromised. "What might change is language, but consistent quality and standards are maintained from event to event, irrespective of location," said David. In the changing environment, this commitment to quality led them to reimagine their broadcast-quality shows.
Shows like “Inside the Octagon”, where commentators John Gooden and Dan Hardy provide in-depth analysis and preview top featured fighters, still had to go on, even without access to production houses. David explained how UFC could deliver on the exemplary production quality they’re known for and keep the momentum going for the future:
"We took concepts that already work on traditional television, applied them digital, and distributed them to an audience across social. In the future, even when we’re allowed to travel again, we can now be smarter about production because we have the strategy in place to produce remotely."
UFC anticipates that 2021 will largely mirror what they dealt with in 2020. They plan to keep their mode of operation, while growing the success of the shows they’ve been creating. David said,
"We’ll be doing more to grow our social presence and build on the successes of the partnerships with Facebook TikTok, and Snapchat. With more time under our belt and with Emplifi as our partner, we’re much smarter on what the audience wants to see."