Believe it or not, UFC 138 will mark the UFC's first visit to England in 2011. The emerging market once spearheaded the UFC's efforts to expand internationally back in 2007 as it housed three major events. In the last two years, however, the country has been put on the back burner by the UFC's efforts to test other markets and the discovery of new, fruitful economies that are receptive to the sport.
At Thursday's UFC 138 press conference, UFC executive Marshall Zelaznik spoke to MMAJunkie.com about the hurdles of trying to get an event back in the UK this year:
On Saturday, UFC fights will takes place in the U.K. for the first time in more than a year. But Marshall Zelaznik admits the fight to get back the octagon started long before.
"There's a lot of pressure to bring the event everywhere around the world," the UFC's managing director of international development told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). "It was a struggle just getting this event in the calendar."
Moving the UFC's pieces to expand internationally while traveling to successful markets and maintaining a base stateside is a chess game of overwhelming scope. It's hard to please everyone while also keeping in mind that positive revenue is the goal. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom doesn't fit into that criteria.
The most significant problem the UFC must overcome in the UK is the reliance on the U.S. audience to help create revenue. The deal with ESPN in the UK is over exaggerated by the media in the U.S. because the network reigns supreme on stateside television. That isn't the case in the UK, and there isn't an equivalent to Spike TV in the UK yet. Brits aren't being bombarded by endless marathons of UFC Unleashed or Countdown shows, thus the brand is having a hard time saturating and driving interest with casual fans.
An emerging market like Brazil also factors into the UFC's options for the future. Obviously, striking a deal with Globo TV and entering a market in which combat sports is a cornerstone of the culture will bring the UFC massive appeal. Brazil also sits in a timezone that allows the UFC to put on live events without a problem. UK events are always on tape delay, hurting the event's appeal for hardcore fans.
There is strong evidence supporting the UFC's choice in traveling to other markets over the UK. The good news is that the UFC's Fox deal stateside could snowball into a similar deal in the UK, making a stronger argument for Britain in the future:
With the UFC's broadcast deal with FOX set to kick full steam in 2012, and the ESPN deal set to expire in August 2012, the promotion hopes to find a permanent home for its programming on FOX's U.K. counterparts, FX and Sky. "The Ultimate Fighter 14" has already found a temporary home with FX.
A deal like that could be what the UK scene needs to get into more homes and add more revenue streams. The faster that the UFC can convert larger revenue streams to UK sources, the easier it is for them to travel to the UK. While Americans hate the fact that these fights are on tape delay, they aren't vital to the success of the promotion in England. That's up to the fans in Britain, and there is a history of combat sports that the UFC has tapped into there along with a strong regional presence.
The UK may be on the back burner for now, but that could all change by the fall of next year. Will a new TV deal be enough to convince the UFC to begin traveling to the UK more often? It would, but the real question is whether the UFC can create a highly-profitable, international hot spot in the UK that makes it worth it to spend the money to travel there. I'm still skeptical at this point.