On Friday, the UFC announced three more shows in the European market for 2015, at the pre-fight press conference for their second-biggest event of all time: UFC on Fox 14: Gustafsson vs. Johnson. The expansion into Europe has picked up pace, especially since the UFC brass hired the experienced European business figures Gary Cook and David Allen, well over a year ago. Allen, a former General Manager of Nike Football EMEA and Adidas marketing executive, is now head of the UFC's Euro department and Bloody Elbow had the chance to speak to him right after the big press conference yesterday.
Bloody Elbow: We are one day away form the second-biggest event in UFC history - and it's in Sweden. What does that say about the European market?
David Allen: People are saying this is the second-biggest event ever. Number one: It's the biggest event ever in Europe! And if you measure it in different terms, not just the capacity of the venue, it will be the biggest event ever in UFC history. This fight will reach out to a billion households in 147 countries. People from 44 different nations are travelling here to watch, even from Brazil, Japan and South-Africa. The reach and enormity of this event is blowing everything away.
In 2015 you planned to do way more European cards than ever. We've got Sweden, plus you announced Poland, Germany and Scotland - that makes four. Last year there have been five events.
We did say we want to increase the events in Europe, but sometimes it's much easier said than done. Although we already have four events coming up, we are still working on the second half of the year. We're talking to different venues, are looking at new markets and some of the markets that we've been to, as well. I am General Manager of EMEA, that's 59 countries in Europe, 54 countries in Africa, 14 countries in the Middle East, and then you throw Russia on top of it. That's 128 countries! We can't get around them all, and we did five last year, so we've got more opportunities than we've got resources to get after them.
Somehow England and Ireland were missing in the big announcement today.
Yes, we haven't announced Dublin, but we were already in Dublin in July. That was six months ago! Actually, we were in the American Dublin last weekend, so we were in Dublin again (laughs). There is only a certain amount of time that we can go to every single market and we have to be careful not to be oversaturating it, either.
So no event in Ireland or England this year?
There is still a possibility for both venues in 2015, and if it doesn't happen in 2015, then in 2016. But we are working and trying to make them happen. We had a horrendous year last year with all the injuries. At this point of time it's so hard to plan that far out. At our press conference "The Time is Now", we released the calendar with all the different dates of our fights. Now we just fill in those boxes, and work with the venues and cities. Of course, London is a flagship for us, it's a beacon for the whole region and the excitement that we had in Dublin in July just blew everyone out of the water. This created opportunities for us. The phone doesn't stop ringing, with cities that want us to come, stadium operators want us to come. But we can't do everything, we got to do it in a correct way. There will be 45 events held around the world this year, and we're trying to get 16 of them on our patch here.
The German TV ban has finally been lifted, but there is an appeal in process against the verdict, by the authority responsible for the ban. How close are you to broadcasting in Germany?
We were really excited by the court ruling. There's an appeal in process and they have the right to do that as well. We welcome that. But we're coming back to town with a great event, we are in negotiations with a number of different broadcasters and we are very close now to signing a major deal with one of them. And when we make that announcement, we will blow everybody away with it. The type and way that we are going to do this is a completely different model than we tried five years ago.
How close is "very close"?
I would love to announce it now if I could, but the deal is done, we have all shaken hands, now it gets handed over to the lawyers and they will take their time and look through everything. I'm not the lawyer here, but I think this ruling has given us and our broadcast partner the opportunity to broadcast. If the lawyers can get themselves together, we wanna get ourselves on TV.
You just signed another big television deal in Russia for one of the biggest state broadcasters, that also televises events from Bellator MMA and M-1 Global. M-1 shows have up to 1.5 million viewers.
It's great for the whole MMA community and absolutely marvellous for the UFC to break into a market like Russia. The state broadcaster gives us access to 55 million households in that country that have not been able to access the UFC before. It breaks open a new market. We don't mind being on television with our competitors. The way we look at it is: You can turn on your TV and watch the Champions League, the Seria A and a lot of other different things in the world of football. It's the same with Mixed Martial Arts, the consumer will decide which one is the best. It won't take them long to decide that.
What took you so long to get into Russia?
We just have to prioritize what we're doing in the market place. This year we signed 12 to 13 different broadcast deals in EMEA, but everything takes time. We have a small team, only two people are out there securing these rights and arrangements with broadcast partners. We have proven that our model works, by putting on five great events in our time zone last year. Now the broadcasters have got an appetite. We are going to blow the figures away in Russia. This is the state broadcaster and with the UFC's marketing machinery promoting every single one of their events in that country, that will make 1.5 million viewers look pale and insignificant.
Do you have plans for an event in Russia?
We are trying to do that. I would say it's not gonna happen in 2015, we're looking at 2016 and anywhere from Moscow to St. Petersburg, or even in Sochi. Sochi was built for the Olympics and it's got ready-made venues and a ready-made demand of the market. This is one of the great places that we could go, but I'd take Moscow or St. Petersburg as well. We're a long way from securing or announcing anything around that, but it's definitely a goal for us. We've got the TV deal done, now the next thing is doing an event there.
One of Europe's major stars is Conor McGregor. Will we see him fight in Europe again anytime soon or is he now a US pay-per-view exclusive?
The question really is: How well will Conor do, going into his next fight? He will have the absolutely toughest fight of his life when he faces Jose Aldo. Aldo hasn't lost a fight in ten years, he's not just going to hand the belt over to Conor. Those two will have a hell of a scrap. What Conor is doing, and what Alex will be doing tomorrow night is: They are putting the Europeans on the map.
Dana announced Aldo-McGregor would happen in the 90,000 seat Croke Park arena in Dublin, now it's in Las Vegas. Has the stadium ever really been considered?
Absolutely, there have been talks about this. We have a group of people out there, looking at venues all across the market place. So did we go to Croke Park? Absolutely. But at this moment in time it didn't work out for us. There were a couple of complications and Dana was very clear about this in the press conference last weekend. People tell me all the time that they love my country, because it's so green. Guess why it's green. It rains (laughs)! I would love to put a roof over Croke Park to dismiss this conversation right away, but I have to work on other things. It didn't work out this time, but you can't say never.
The Irish fans might be disappointed. No stadium show and likely no event at all this year.
I am from Dublin and I am not disappointed, because there's a guy from Ireland who is flying to the fight capital of the world, Las Vegas, with the Irish flag wrapped around his neck to bring home the belt. And there's another guy from Rio de Janeiro walking in with the Brazilian flag around his neck. Both are fighting for the title on neutral ground and we will see who wins. If it's Conor, then we will see what's next for him. But we're not at this stage yet, we can't even think about it. He's had a meteoric rise within the UFC and now he has his toughest challenge right in front of him. Let's figure all this things out when he fights, hopefully in May.
If Gustafsson wins tomorrow, he'll face Jon Jones again. How likely is this fight going to happen in Sweden?
We would love to do that. I've talked to people here and they told me: "Don't go to the Tele2 Arena, go to the Friends Arena, because it holds 60,000 people." But again, for Alex: Can you imagine he goes over to the world's fight capital with the Swedish flag and brings back the title? The papers here today all compare Alex to Ingemar Johansson, the boxing heavyweight champion that came out of Sweden. Ingemar fought for his title in New York. He went across the water, fought for the title and brought it back. I'm not evading the question, but there's another fella (sic) standing in the way of Alex, and his name is Anthony Johnson. Alex couldn't wish for a more formidable opponent. The number one and three ranked light-heavyweights are going at it on Saturday night.
The Swedish fans also seem disappointed with the Vegas scenario.
People were complaining they don't get great cards in Europe and we completely turned that on it's head. And now people are asking me questions like where Conor is going to fight for the title and where Alex is going to fight for the title, before he has even won his fight tomorrow night? These are no conversations to be having. Things have changed dramatically in the last 12 to 18 months in the way that we operate - all to the benefit of everyone in the MMA community.