Examining UFC’s future after 30 years of fights

Dana White was on a stage in Las Vegas in late 2013. The UFC had just celebrated its 20th anniversary after a successful 12-month period, one that saw women fight in the Octagon for the first time.

Behind White, the UFC president at that moment, was a black screen with an Octagon-shaped Earth in the middle. The words above the Earth-tagon read, “World F—ing Domination.” The words below it: “Reshaping the sports world.”

To White’s right was then-UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta and to his left was Lawrence Epstein, the UFC’s chief operating officer. It was a presentation for the company’s employees and a battle cry for the next year and beyond.

Sunday marks the UFC’s 30th anniversary, and the promotion rang it in with a major pay-per-view card, UFC 295, on Saturday night at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

While world domination might have been hyperbolic, the UFC has largely achieved the goal it set 10 years ago. In that time span, the promotion has run events in 17 new countries, and that’s with two years of little to no travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UFC airs in more than 170 countries, has more than 50 global distribution partners and is broadcast in 50 languages. In addition to the state-of-the-art UFC Performance Institute training facilities in Las Vegas and Shanghai, another one is nearly ready to open in Mexico City.

“We are not just a North American or a United States sport,” Epstein told ESPN. “We are a global sport. The UFC is a global brand, and we have a global mindset.”

The UFC is in a unique position, as both a thriving business and the leader in an emerging sport. Arguably no other sport in the world has grown more in the past 30 years than MMA, and the UFC is the space’s linchpin by a large degree.

In 2016, the Fertittas sold the UFC to Hollywood talent agency Endeavor for about $4 billion. When the UFC merged with WWE under Endeavor as the new publicly traded company TKO in September of this year, the MMA promotion was valued at $12 billion. According to SEC filings, the UFC made nearly $1.3 billion in revenue in the past four quarters ending Sep. 30, 2023.

With all that has been accomplished in the past three decades, where could the rapidly expanding UFC end up in another 30 years? ESPN talked to some of the top stakeholders in the sport, including UFC executives, fighters, agents and coaches, about that topic.

Endeavor’s ongoing influence of UFC

It’s difficult to discuss the future of the UFC — or the UFC, at all, really — without mentioning White, who has been the consistent face of the promotion since he and the Fertitta brothers purchased it for just $2 million in 2001. White is brash and foul-mouthed, and operates completely differently than any other head of a sports organization. But he’s also the kind of bombastic, anti-hero figure who fits extremely well with a raw sport that features men or women fighting each other inside a cage.

White is extremely popular with UFC fans — just listen to the reaction he gets from fans at news conferences, typically louder than the fighters — and has his finger on the pulse of what they want.

“He is the culture of this company,” UFC chief business officer Hunter Campbell told ESPN in a recent interview. “And he is obsessed with greatness, and he is obsessed with being the best.”

There is no official UFC succession plan after White. But White said in a 2022 interview with Barstool Sports that there is someone he believes could do the job after him. He’s just not saying who it is.

“There’s a formula to what we do and why we’ve been successful. And there is a guy, there’s one guy,” he said. “There are certain things that I do he wouldn’t be able to do, but the important things that get done over there is what really matters. And this guy could absolutely, positively do it.”

White added that “nobody would even know who the f—” this person is. One high-profile MMA agent speculated to ESPN that it could be Campbell, who is heavily involved with all the major UFC matchmaking and business dealings.

Obviously, there will also be input from TKO. In fact, that has already begun. White told Sports Business Journal recently that former WWE owner and TKO executive chairman Vince McMahon was the one who brokered the UFC’s deal with Saudi Arabia. A UFC Fight Night card in Riyadh is scheduled for March 2024. It will be the UFC’s first event in the country, while WWE has partnered with Saudi Arabia since 2018.

Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel is the big boss for both the UFC and WWE now following the merger, but he has been hands off with the UFC so far, letting White do his thing. TKO is publicly traded, too, which means shareholders and stock-price fluctuations will likely impact decision-making moving forward.

In any case, it’s difficult to imagine the UFC without White as the frontman. But that day will come eventually. When is anyone’s guess. White is 54 years old, yet, who couldn’t imagine White in his 80s still yelling about what badasses his fighters are? Top Rank boxing founder and CEO Bob Arum is 91, after all.

“None of us are going to live forever,” Epstein said. “And there’s no replacing Dana White, that’s for sure. But we’ve built a sustainable organization. This is an organization that’s going to live on forever.”

Of course, there is one other option.

“We could figure out a way to clone him or something,” Epstein said with a laugh.

More events, more superstars?

The UFC is on pace to complete 43 events and 14 pay-per-view cards in 2023. That amount — almost one per week with no offseason and a short break over the winter holidays — has been consistent over the past few years. It’s also not likely to increase, according to executives, because of the potential strain it would put on the production team as it’s currently constituted. The number does not include “Dana White’s Contender Series” shows, “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series episodes or “Road to UFC” events.

Could that strategy change? Certainly. And there are plans to expand the Contender Series and Road to UFC tournaments in the near future, execs said. The UFC is already producing quite a lot of content — not on the scale of, say, Major League Baseball, where 30 teams play 162 games each — and there’s a conscious effort, Epstein said, that things “don’t get diluted in any way.” That likely means there won’t be two or more events on the same day anymore. The UFC has done two in the same 24-hour period before — two Fight Night cards in Texas and New Zealand, respectively — but that was in 2014.

“We’re always looking for opportunities to create new and exciting content that, of course, is relevant to the sport and the UFC ecosystem,” Epstein said. “We also are cognizant of trying to create an elegant balance between events that are relevant and important, but not saturating any particular market.”

The UFC’s content revolves around the fights, but also the fighters — the stars and personalities that draw fans to tune in or order on pay-per-view. People in the MMA industry believe over the next few decades, UFC fighters will become mainstream celebrities more frequently. The Hollywood Reporter recently included Conor McGregor on a list of the 25 potential next action-movie stars. McGregor is in the upcoming Jake Gyllenhaal film “Road House.”

McGregor’s agent, Audie Attar of Paradigm Sports Management, pointed out that some of the biggest stars in Hollywood are former WWE wrestlers Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John Cena and Dave Bautista. With the UFC and WWE now under the same umbrella as TKO, and owned by a talent agency, Attar says that could make the progression from fighter to actor a bit easier.

“These [MMA] superstars are real bad asses and if they could also act, now people are going to not only want to watch them in whatever medium they’re performing, but then it’s a lot more believable a guy could take on five dudes as he walks into a bar [in a movie],” Attar said.

What about fighter pay?

Justin Gaethje, the former UFC interim lightweight champion, says MMA is already the most popular sport worldwide. More so than soccer, he said, because “soccer doesn’t have America.” It’s the simplicity of MMA that makes it so easily transferable to everyone. Fighting, after all, is considered the world’s oldest sport going back to pankration in ancient Greece.

“All we need is some dirt and another person,” Gaethje said with a laugh. “Luckily, I had a twin brother, and this is what we do.”

The UFC does not figure to have issues recruiting talent in the near future, but one thing people in the industry believe could help the UFC attract even more or better talent is an increase in fighter pay.

The UFC pays more to fighters now than it ever has before, and it compensates fighters more — and more consistently — than any other MMA promotion. But the UFC’s revenue, which has exploded in the past few years, has outpaced fighter pay. Documents from an ongoing class-action antitrust lawsuit against the UFC brought by former athletes have estimated that the UFC has paid around 18% of revenue to fighters on average and potentially as low as 13% recently.

Other major sports — including the NFL and NBA — have closer to a 50% share of revenue going to athletes. Of course, athletes in those sports have collective bargaining via a union or players’ association. Could that be in the future for MMA? Many in the industry do not believe so.

Fighters are independent contractors, which means they would need to be legally reclassified as employees to form a union. Furthermore, the business models are much different in the UFC compared to sports leagues with 30 or more teams competing against one another. MMA is very much an individual sport, and some believe it would be hard to get fighters to buy into unifying with potential opponents, though other individual sports have associations like the Professional Tennis Players Association and Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. The UFC is also kind of a revolving door of talent.

“The reason why I find it hard to unionize or to do anything like that is because it’s so temporary,” Fight Ready MMA coach Santino DeFranco said. “These guys can be signed to a four-fight deal and they’re cut after two fights. The competition level is so high, and guys are in and out so frequently.”

The antitrust case could go to trial in 2024, potentially changing the MMA landscape. An extension of boxing’s Ali Act to MMA would also impact things in a big way. It could make MMA more like boxing with shorter contracts and many different promoters bidding for the top fighters and fights. That has its pros and cons, including the perception now that boxing has a difficult time putting together the best possible fights fans want to see, which the UFC does consistently. There is no UFC-like promoter in boxing with the vast majority of the top fighters, rather a group of influential promoters, a model that the Ali Act ensures to keep an open market for fighters. The Ali Act was enacted in 2000 to protect boxers from restrictive contracts and set up a standardized rankings system not controlled by promoters.

Attar says the future of the UFC will include “more visibility” for athletes and more recognition of their value.

“Look at the last 30 years and how things have progressed in terms of, from a fighter perspective, more empowerment, more data, more information, and empowering them to understand their value, empowering the people that they put around them to ensure that they’re charting the path forward for them,” Attar said. “Well, that’s going to allow them to really not only maximize their careers as fighters, but also as businessmen and businesswomen. Because, ultimately, they’re brands, right?”

One prominent MMA agent who spoke to ESPN under the condition of anonymity said he believes there “needs to be” some type of fighters’ organization and that it will happen eventually. He also said there figures to be competition from the UFC in the MMA space, potentially from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has already invested around $100 million in PFL and holds a minority stake in that promotion. Competition would lend itself to more money for fighters in potential bidding wars. PFL, the agent believes, will be a major player moving forward.

“I think their cap table and their investors are just too smart to f— up,” the agent said. “I don’t think they’ll ever be the No. 1, but I think they’ll be competitive.”

The UFC is the market leader in MMA by a wide margin and getting to the UFC is the goal of many fighters, more so than making money. The perception is that the UFC is the big leagues, like the NFL or NBA. For many, the letters “UFC” are synonymous or even more well-known than the letters “MMA.” That does not figure to change anytime soon.

Still, in 2023, former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou and former UFC pay-per-view-selling star Nate Diaz participated in boxing matches where both said they got paid more than they did in their UFC fights.

Minutes after becoming UFC bantamweight champion in August, Sean O’Malley, the promotion’s potential future megastar, talked at his postfight news conference about a boxing match with Gervonta Davis. There’s still the perception that there is more money to be made in boxing than in the UFC.

“I want to have crazy, massive fights,” O’Malley said. “That s— gets me excited. I love that stuff. And, I mean, there’s no stars in the bantamweight division. Gervonta, you could consider him like almost a star. And that’s what gets me excited.”

McGregor made more money in his boxing match against Floyd Mayweather than he did in the UFC, but the UFC was also part of that promotion and it was Mayweather, boxing’s biggest box-office star, across the ring.

The reality, though, according to one high-level agent, is only the biggest names who are proven pay-per-view draws can cash in on a high-profile boxing match. Not everyone can go box Jake Paul or Mayweather and make millions. The situations with Ngannou and Diaz seem more circumstantial than representative of a trend.

That’s not to say fighters don’t want to get paid more and haven’t said as much. In 2020, now-retired star Jorge Masvidal was in a contract dispute with the UFC and unhappy about how much he was being offered. While Masvidal ended up being happy with the pay and has said he believes from top to bottom, UFC fighters get paid more than boxers, at the time he was vocal about the UFC’s practices.

“I just want what’s fair, and I’m not even asking for 50% because I know [the UFC puts] a lot of work into it,” Masvidal said on “SportsCenter” three years ago. “But I’m asking for them to work with my brothers and sisters within the sport because this 18% crap has to go. It can’t be like that no more.”

Could the next UFC PPV be in the metaverse?

The UFC, which produces its own events unlike most other sports properties, has polished production with an understated approach. There isn’t a ton of over-the-top spectacle like WWE and some big boxing events. There are no fireworks or giant video boards during entrances. The UFC’s ethos is to let the fights in all their visceral glory speak for themselves. Craig Borsari, the UFC’s executive vice president of operations and production, does not believe that will change any time soon. However, the promotion does have a vision for how some new bells and whistles can add to the viewing experience, provided it still fits within the current philosophy and doesn’t take away from the excitement of the fights themselves.

Technology is the key word when it comes to the future of UFC production, Borsari said, and those advancements can be impossible to predict far in the future. But one thing that could happen in the short term? The UFC utilizes more elements of virtual reality and augmented reality and has the potential to hold fights in the metaverse — a shared and immersive 3D virtual space where humans experience life in ways they might not in the physical world These are things that have already been discussed. It’s safe to assume Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg — who is a massive MMA fan and trains in martial arts, including with some top UFC athletes — will get involved.

In March, Zuckerberg did an MMA sparring session with UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski in the metaverse. In August, Meta announced there would be a UFC-themed experience on its virtual reality platform Horizon Worlds.

“We are at the very beginning state — the first round, I should say — of what we could experience in this augmented reality space, VR and Metaverse,” Borsari said. “And that’s incredibly exciting to me. We’re just scratching the surface and it’s really limited just to our imagination and how fast can engineers get us to a point where live content can exist in a way where fans really adopt it.”

What does that mean exactly? In its most basic form, it could be the ability to strap on a virtual-reality headset and have it transport you into the front row at a major, real-life UFC pay-per-view event.

The UFC has experimented in the past with 3D, a fence cam and certain fighter and fight statistics that appear on broadcasts, and they’ve largely moved away from them. Borsari said fans could see some “next-gen” stats on the screen in the near future. That could mean showing a fighter’s heart rate or some of their biometrics. It could almost appear as a pseudo power bar like in video games.

“Anything that we’re going to be looking at, it has to enhance the broadcast,” Borsari said. “It has to be helpful in our ability to story tell and inform the viewer, giving them a more enhanced picture of what is happening.”

Though the UFC and WWE are now within the same company as TKO, do not expect more professional wrestling-inspired entrances in the UFC. The UFC has a look and feel for walkouts that the promotion likes very much and will only stray from it during certain scenarios, like it has done with McGregor and Adesanya.

“It’s unlikely to see us changing our standard walk-in, but we will lean into a certain fighter or fight that presents itself to an increased or different production execution,” Borsari said.

Fighter training and development

Raul Rosas Jr. was 17 years old last year when he became the youngest fighter ever signed to a UFC contract. He is part of a new generation of fighters who didn’t grow up training in a singular discipline of martial arts, but MMA as a whole. There figures to be more Raul Rosases in the next 30 years. Many current fighters in their 20s or 30s didn’t grow up watching the UFC, because it either wasn’t as popular or didn’t exist. That puts into perspective just how young the promotion is.

“You look at the younger generation and they’re all UFC or MMA fans — mostly UFC fans — and so they’re growing up with the sport now,” Attar said.

The training and coaching only figures to improve, too, which it already has exponentially over the past 10 years. Attar said he expects to see more data and analytics used in gyms and more preventative measures for concussions. The days of fighters taking mindless punishment in the training room and nearly killing themselves to make weight seem to be declining as awareness and technology increase.

“Even from the weight-cutting perspective, I remember just throwing guys in saunas and we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, the science behind it,” Xtreme Couture MMA coach Eric Nicksick said. … “So, the nutrition side of things, the science behind the weight cuts, the taking care of their bodies, the strength and conditioning — all these things are going to get better.”

Epstein said one of the goals of the UFC Performance Institutes, especially the one in China and the upcoming facility in Mexico City, is to teach fighters (and prospective fighters) to “train safer and better,” along with “strength and conditioning, nutrition, injury recovery.” And, of course, those two international PIs will also have a goal of talent development in those regions, which will likely lead to more very young talent like Rosas making its way to the Octagon.

“How do we take local talent that’s not ready for the UFC right now and help them grow their skill sets to where they can compete in the UFC?” Epstein said. “And the question is, how early in the development of these athletes do you get involved? And I think we’re open to getting athletes involved extremely early.”

Performance Institutes and pipeline development

The UFC still has growing to do in the United States, and the belief internally is that the UFC can explode internationally by expanding in new or budding markets exponentially.

That doesn’t mean just holding events, either. According to the promotion, there are 78 countries or territories represented by UFC fighters. That number will likely increase with the expectation that several of those fighters will become stars and further open doors in their respective regions, as McGregor did in Ireland, Michael Bisping did in the United Kingdom, Khabib Nurmagomedov did in the Caucuses and Zhang Weili is doing in China.

Identifying and cultivating those potential pioneers takes work and the UFC doesn’t have a traditional developmental feeder system like the NCAA. What it does have is partnerships with regional promotions worldwide that broadcast on UFC Fight Pass, UFC Performance Institutes and events like Contender Series and Road to UFC.

David Shaw, the UFC’s executive vice president and head of international and content, said to expect more international editions of Contender Series and an expansion of the Road to UFC series, which has been focused on Asia. The UFC already did a Contender Series Brazil in 2018, and there will likely be more on the way. Shaw said a Contender Series or Road to UFC tournament in Abu Dhabi “would make total sense” given the UFC’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates’ Department of Culture and Tourism.

During UFC 294 last month in Abu Dhabi, White brought up the idea of a potential UFC Performance Institute (PI) there. There are no official plans yet, but the UFC does intend to build more Performance Institute facilities. The one in Mexico City is expected to open before the end of the year, and that location, along with the one in Shanghai, has a developmental aspect. The flagship UFC PI in Las Vegas is mainly for current UFC fighters trying to up their game. There are no dedicated MMA coaches, rather a focus on strength, conditioning, nutrition, physical therapy, etc. But the two international ones will focus on developing potential future UFC talent and will have coaches teaching them the necessary disciplines of MMA like striking, grappling and wrestling.

Shaw said the hope is that the UFC will hold a show in Africa in the “next couple of years.” Based on the UFC’s internal analytics, he also said there is major growth potential in Eurasia and Southeast Asia.

Some of the best up-and-coming fighters in the UFC are coming out of Eurasia, like Shavkat Rakhmonov, an Uzbekistan-born Kazakh. And, of course, if you lump in the Caucasus region, Dagestan and Chechnya have been producing top talent for years. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines (boxing) and Thailand (Muay Thai) already have a combat culture and Indonesia has an enormous population. Jeka Saragih of Indonesia came out of the first Road to UFC season that started in 2022 and Shaw said he has a sizable following in his home country.

The man who beat Saragih in the Road to UFC finals, Anshul Jubli, is the first fighter from India to win a UFC fight. That country and its more than 1 billion people are a major target for the UFC in the future. The UFC just signed its first India-born female fighter in Puja Tomar. Epstein said the UFC could tap its new partner, WWE, which has a “great business” in India, to help make headway there.

“[WWE has] got a lot of fans in India,” Epstein said. “There’s going to be opportunities for us to leverage that type of stuff to grow our business in India.”

The UFC’s biggest crowd was already overseas: 57,127 in Melbourne, Australia, for Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya at UFC 243 in 2019. Shaw said he doesn’t believe there’s “anything slowing us down” from continued success internationally. MMA, he said, translates across countries and cultures more than many, if not all, of the endemic U.S.-based sports.

“In 30 years,” Shaw said, “I see it surpassing soccer.”

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