After more than two decades of legal battles and political wrangling, Ultimate Fighting Championship will make its long-awaited return to New York City on Saturday for UFC 205. The event is a watershed moment in the company’s bid to solidify its standing as a major player on the sports media landscape.
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Headlined by stars like Conor McGregor and hometown hero Chris Weidman, UFC 205 is expected to be one of the biggest draws in history for both Madison Square Garden and the UFC as a whole. But gate receipts and pay-per-view buys are just part of the bounty UFC is aiming to earn through its return to the Big Apple.
For a company that has historically struggled to land mainstream sponsors, the event at New York City’s most famous arena is a critical opportunity to connect with corporate brands and showcase its best fighters on the world’s biggest media stage. A successful card would kick-start UFC, backed by talent giant WME-IMG after a $4 billion sale last summer, in its effort to reach a bigger audience and score more lucrative deals.
“I’m very happy for the UFC and the work which every single person put into getting MMA back in New York State,” Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the women’s strawweight champion and a top competitor at UFC 205, told FOXBusiness.com. She added that the event is “probably the biggest UFC card ever.”
UFC executives have devoted considerable resources to generate buzz for the New York event, with a citywide advertising effort punctuated this week by billboards near Madison Square Garden and in Times Square.
Reebok (NYSE:RBK), the UFC’s exclusive apparel partner, created a new line of products specifically tailored to UFC 205. Harvey Davidson (NYSE:HD) motorcycle, another major sponsor, is hosting a watch party at Bagram military base in Afghanistan, as well as an honorary ride through New York City with UFC fighters and the Wounded Warriors organization.
The extensive local marketing efforts ahead of the event are emblematic of the value that company president Dana White and his associates see in New York City. When state politicians agreed to allow the return of a mixed martial arts as a taxed and regulated industry last March, former UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta said New York was “the biggest market for us in the United States already” in terms of pay-per-view buys.
“Being front and center to Madison Avenue reinforces the sport’s ascension over the years and allows UFC to market the sport even more personally and tactically to potential advertisers and sponsor, given the opportunity to entertain them at the event,” said David Carter, a marketing expert and executive director of the University of Southern California’s Sports Business Institute.
A month ago, the event already had the highest average resale price on the secondary market of any UFC ticket in history, according to SeatGeek data. As of Friday, the cheapest available ticket cost more than $800, with floor seats selling for a minimum of $3,300 per ticket.
“This is certainly the most in-demand UFC fight we have seen since we started tracking the secondary market in 2010,” SeatGeek analyst Chris Leyden said.
A strong showing in New York won’t just help UFC attract new sponsors – it will increase the company’s appeal as a media property. In 2011, the UFC signed a seven-year television deal with FOX Sports worth a purported $100 million per year. When that deal expires, UFC, with access to every major national and international media market, will likely seek a substantial increase to that total.
Weidman, who will fight Yoel Romero at UFC 205, told FOXBusiness.com last May that sponsors and companies alike would be more eager to get involved with MMA after it was no longer deemed an illegal sport in some states.
“Now it’s completely legal wherever you go in the U.S. There’s going to be a lot more businesses that are going to come around and be a part of it and see that there’s a lot of gain for their companies through mixed martial arts and the exposure that we can get them,” he said.