CNBC goes inside the octagon with front man Dana White, the fighters and the billionaire backers who turned the league from a dying franchise into a global sensation.
As the UFC's President, Dana White took a business from near extinction and turned it into a global powerhouse.
The brand has expanded into Europe, and is looking to conquer Australia in 2010. Revenues were $275 million in 2008 - up 37% from 2006 - and according to White, there's no end in sight.
White: "We're not anywhere close to where this thing's gonna be. This is gonna be the biggest sport in the world."
Brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, owners of the Stations Casino empire, rolled the dice on the UFC. The billionaires put up $2 million to buy and $44 million more to run the near-bankrupt league in 2001.
While early times were tough and the brothers thought about cutting their losses, they let it ride.
Lorenzo Fertitta says the gamble continues to pay off: "We are up year over year in every category...revenue, profit, pay-per-view, live gate, international TV sales, sponsorships, everywhere. The question is - without our recession, where would our business be?"
(Featured Left to Right: Lorenzo Fertitta/Frank Fertitta)
The popularity of Ultimate Fighting has caught the attention of Donald Trump. He’s thrown his hat into the ring – backing The “Affliction” league….which even with big money backing found it difficult to compete with the UFC.
Trump: “I think the sport itself is hot,” Trump told CNBC at the Affliction Trilogy press conference, “I really believe it’s probably the fastest growing sport of any sport in the world.”
After years underground, playing to meager crowds in small stadiums and losing money on events, the UFC has exploded in popularity and profits. Fans now pack arenas around the globe and ticket sales of several millions of dollars are the norm.
The highest gate-to-date is UFC 66. The championship bout between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, generated $5,397,300 in gross ticket sales. That is more than double the amount the Fertittas paid to buy the near bankrupt league in 2001.
After years of ownership, the UFC has the financial backing from three "kings" of corporate America.
The King of Beers... Anheuser-Busch InBev signed a three-year deal with the UFC, making Bud Light the exclusive beer of the sports franchise.
The King of Burgers... Burger King is a sponsor of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show on Spike and moved into pay-per-view with UFC 98.
And, King of the Road...Harley Davidson signed on as a presenting sponsor for the UFC. The deal is Harley's first foray into a global sports sponsorship outside the motorcycle/automotive category.
The "G" in Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre's name now also stands for Gatorade.
Considered to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in mixed martial arts, GSP is the first in the sport to be sponsored by Gatorade, an endorsement approved by the UFC.
Published reports indicate that the UFC is putting a stranglehold on prospective endorsers – charging them a $100,000 fee for the right to sponsor fighters for a 6-month period. Smaller companies are crying foul, saying the high fee will keep them out of the fight game, while the UFC says the deals will allow for larger fight purses in the future.
In the fight game, to "tap out" means to submit or give up. But, the term took on a new meaning when three friends turned their passion for mixed martial arts into profits.
The trio known as PunkAss, Mask and SkySkrape first sold shirts out of the back of a car at fights. By 2008, TapouT was the world's largest apparel company for the sport with $100 million in sales.
In 2009, the company suffered a huge loss – Charles Lewis Jr. (Mask) died in a car crash outside Los Angeles.
Dan Caldwell (PunkAss): "We were friends with him for 20 years. And to lose him, you know, it was a hard time. But, professionally, we knew that we had to get back out there… we got up and went into work and continued the dream."
(Featured left to right: Tim Katz "SkySkrape" / Charles Lewis Jr. "Mask" / Dan Caldwell "PunkAss" )
In an effort to get the UFC back on television, Dana White and the Fertittas decided to create, produce and finance a TV show of their own.
In 2005, they debuted "The Ultimate Fighter", a reality show pitting up-and-coming mixed martial artists against each other fighting for the ultimate prize - a six-figure, multi-fight contract with the UFC.
Season one was a hit and Spike immediately signed on for more. The partnership deal runs through 2011.
(Featured: Fighter Nate Quarry in Ultimate Fighter Finale 3, June 2006)
July 11, 2009. The Las Vegas strip lit up for the largest event in the history of Ultimate Fighting Championship - UFC 100.
The night drew an estimated 11,000 fans, bringing in an impressive $5.1 million in ticket sales - not surprising when prices ranged from $500 to $40,000 a seat on the secondary market.
The event also drew controversy when fighter Brock Lesnar spoke out against sponsor Bud Light – saying, “I’m drinking a cooler full of Coors Light, Coors Light because Bud Light won’t pay me anything.”
Lesnar, who made $400,000 for his win, apologized in the post-fight press conference, after a scolding from Dana White.
Accountant turned Ultimate Fighting Champion, Chuck Liddell is used to counting his winnings. At UFC 79, "The Iceman" is victorious - taking home $500,000 for the win plus a $50,000 bonus for having the "Fight of the Night".
Rich Franklin, a former math teacher who holds a Master’s Degree in Education, went from shaping minds to knocking heads in the octagon.
Franklin: “God has granted me the ability to fight and my objective is to win.”
As the UFC grew in popularity, Franklin became one of its biggest stars. He’s made millions in fights and through endorsements --- a far cry from his former $44-thousand a year teaching salary.
(Featured: Rich Franklin, on the left, fights the late Evan Tanner in 2005)
If you've ever wanted to get in the Octagon with Rich Franklin or Anderson Silva - the current UFC video game may be your safest bet.
UFC 2009 Undisputed, which premiered May 19, 2009, sold more than 1,000,000 copies in its first month on the shelves. The game, in collaboration with game developer THQ, features 80 fighters and even a virtual Dana White.
CNBC Originals and Scott Wapner profile a global brand making money hand over fist.
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