It was interesting listening to Lorenzo Fertitta last weekend. He gave a keynote speech at the UFC Fan Expo, the day after Dana White and in front of a much, much smaller crowd. Yet, in a prepared speech and a fan question and answer session, Fertitta said much, much more. Fans asked Fertitta much braver and more insightful questions than most reporters manage and Lorenzo was up to the challenge.
One issue that jumped out was the UFC's intention to become a worldwide brand: and why that has turned out to be such a complicated task. The UFC has struggled in the United Kingdom, angered their new partners in the middle east, and failed to launch in Japan. But it is Germany that stands out as the UFC's biggest failure-and it's biggest challenge.
After drawing a meager crowd of just 12,854 for their German debut at UFC 99 in Cologne (in an arena that seats from 18,500-20,000 depending on the setup) the event was subsequently lambasted in the German media. A crusading politician named Norbert Schneider sought to get the sport banned on German television. With allies in the boxing and professional wrestling communities, he succeeded. Despite an 11 PM timeslot, the sport was deemed unfit for public consumption. DSF was forced to pull all UFC programming after the Bavarian state office for new media used a "human dignity" law to justify overruling the ratings board who decided MMA was in good company with porn ads and other late night fare.
To the Fertitta's, "no" is an unacceptable answer. They battled politicians and a hostile media here in America-and won. Zuffa is an aggressive company. Like former President George W. Bush (who Fertitta once donated money to), Zuffa practices a distinctly American form of cowboy style diplomacy. Don't want them in your community? Too bad. Banned in Toronto, they decided to open an office there. Banned in Germany? Well, they're coming anyway.
I appreciate the enthusiasm, but in this case it could backfire in a big way. The UFC is currently banned on German television. Their network partners DSF are batting for them and the case is pending in court. Pushing German politicians is a bad idea. The battle could start at a local level politico and spread like a horrible virus to a state level operator. It's not much of a logical leap to say that an event that is inappropriate on a 52 inch Sony is also inappropriate live and in person. A politician looking to make a name could score an easy political victory by running the company right out of town.
Sometimes pushing hard works. Bullying fighters, agents, and competitors-that's just good old fashioned American capitalism. But bullying politicians in Germany isn't a winning proposition. For once Zuffa needs to concede the battle in order to win the war. Otherwise they may see themselves banned in Europe's most combat sport friendly country.