In the lead-up to a high-profile night of fights in Toronto on Saturday (Dec. 10), the Ultimate Fighting Championship is taking some notable and perhaps controversial steps to burnish its public profile, with an eye to expanding into other Canadian markets.
Just over a year ago, for example, the mixed martial arts spectacles were banned in Ontario. Now, UFC promoters are in talks with the city of Toronto about working with school children.
"When I opened up this office back in June of last year, I made a commitment that UFC would give back to communities where it was holding events," says Tom Wright, director of Canadian operations for UFC, the promotion company that sponsors these pay-per-view elimination battles between martial arts combatants.
To this end, a number of UFC fighters, including London, Ont., native Sam Stout, took part in a speaking event at the Rogers Centre earlier this week to raise awareness of social issues like bullying.
The previous week, the Toronto Star reported that councillor Doug Ford, brother of Mayor Rob Ford, had sent a memo to some Toronto school trustees touting UFC Community Works, a program that promotes fitness, discipline and respect through mixed martial arts training and face-to-face sessions with UFC fighters.
"Good corporations give back to their communities," Wright says. But he also acknowledges that the league is looking to expand its big pay-per-view events beyond its current markets in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
"We will look to some other big cities: Calgary, Edmonton, maybe Ottawa," says Wright, adding that he's also interested in staging smaller events in Halifax, Quebec City and Winnipeg.
In a relatively short period of time, mixed martial arts has grown from being vilified for its perceived bloodlust to almost mainstream entertainment.
The most convincing evidence may be UFC 129, the pay-per-view event that took place in Toronto on April 30, 2011. More than 55,000 fans streamed to the Rogers Centre to witness it in person.
The sport's growing credibility is mainly due to some savvy marketing, say experts.
"The perception has been that [mixed martial arts] is violent and it doesn't have any rules. But they've had a masterful marketing and public relations program for a long time to make the brand more generally acceptable," says Cary Kaplan, president of Cosmos Sports Marketing in Toronto.
Part of that approach includes taking steps to make the sport safer.
"When mixed martial arts started, it was very much a boxer versus a wrestler, karate fighter versus a ninjutsu fighter. They would just go, no holds barred," says Norm O'Reilly, professor of sports business at the University of Ottawa.
"Now there are more rules, the referees are much more involved. [The promoter] is more cognizant of the risks to fighters."
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Wright says that, unlike wrestling, UFC emphasizes the athleticism of the fighters as well as the authenticity of the actual matches — every punch and kick is real.
According to Kaplan, one of the shrewdest moves the league made was to produce the reality series The Ultimate Fighter for the American network Spike TV.
A behind-the-scenes look at certain UFC fighters, the show demonstrated the intensity of the training regimen as well as the anguish of losing matches.
Fighters in schools
Rather than glorifying the bloodthirsty elements of the sport, it made the fighters more relatable, says Kaplan, and consequently broadened the audience for UFC.
"Those shows aren't watched by 21-year-old guys who are looking for blood," says Kaplan. "They're watched by families, people in older demographics, that end up identifying with the athletes."
The league has also played up the personalities, like Georges St. Pierre, the chiseled three-time UFC champion from Montreal.
"He's a proud Canadian, he's a great fighter, he's a clean fighter, he's brilliant with the media, he's good-looking, women like him," says O'Reilly.
At the Toronto event in April, the league announced UFC Community Works, an outreach initiative aimed at teaching children and at-risk youth about the benefits of fitness and discipline.
In response to Doug Ford's overture, some Toronto school trustees have expressed concern that extreme fighters are not appropriate role models for students. But Wright thinks the concern is misplaced.
"The first thing that they teach you when you go into a dojo or a karate class is they teach you about discipline and honour and sportsmanship and leadership," he says.
"These are great qualities. What parent wouldn't want their kid to be exposed to those things?"
However, O'Reilly says that while he thinks UFC has been "very smart" about trying to shift perceptions of their brand for the mass market, "I don't think there's any place for them in schools.
"I don't know if parents would want a UFC fighter in a school with 11 year olds."
While the Toronto controversy is likely to persist, it's also a sign of ultimate fighting's growing popularity.
Still, Kaplan warns that the UFC should be cautious about expanding too quickly into too many markets.
"You want to have a regular amount of fights, but you have to be careful not to over-saturate," he says.
"If they doubled or tripled the number of fights they had, then you start getting to a point where it gets much easier to get a ticket, and the value decreases."