STOP PRESS: The rumour mill has been in full swing in the UK that a UFC event, after all, may not take place here in 2011 due to programming and venue availability.
Marshall Zelaznik, the UK UFC vice-president, has answered a series of questions put to him.
One thing I do know, and it is from having a sit-down with UFC president Dana White in his office in Las Vegas less than a month ago. The UFC has no plans to leave the UK market.
They wish to find a way of putting events on in the UK which could be pay per view in the United States. As yet, because of the timings of British-staged events, there is a time delay, and the events tend to be on Spike TV as free-to-air, rather than pay per view, which tend to include almost all of the major fights.
The UFC is looking to find a solution to this, because White told me categorically that he both “values the UK fans and their passion” and would not consider leaving the UK market.
Q: What the status of the UFC’s next UK event? There are a lot of rumours the UFC may not have an event here this year.
MZ: Unfortunately, that could end up as the case. It’s not what anyone wants but it could be what happens this year. The fans are disappointed we may not have an event here, I get it. Why wouldn’t they be? They have supported us and trust me when I say we have worked and will continue to work hard to reward them for their support. �
Q: What is the issue?
What has happened is that pretty early on in the year we realized that October would be best time to marry up the available venues with anticipated US TV dates and we began working towards that. However, literally in the last three weeks the TV date moved to and even though we are over 5 months away from that new date when we readjusted our target the venues we had been holding had already been contracted to other parties. So in summary the US TV date isn’t matching up with venue availability.
Q: Everyone believed there would be an event in Liverpool in October?
MZ: That’s one thing we are always conscious of getting across to our fanbase… unless the UFC announces it on UFC.com or a reputable media quotes Dana, Lorenzo, myself or someone else who speaks for the company, it’s not official. My Facebook has been blowing up with people saying they were going to the Liverpool show, but there’s never been a Liverpool show confirmed. What happens is any promoter, UFC, boxing, Rolling Stones, whoever, provisionally holds an arena months or even a year ahead. It is called ‘first pencil’ on a date. If another show comes along and says they want one of the dates you are sitting on, you have to go to contract with 24hours or you lose that date. We had an October pencil for Liverpool then and we also were holding first pencils across various venues in the UK. As it somehow always does, it leaks out that we were holding Liverpool and fans conclude the shows happening.�
A long time ago we heard of fans booking flights from Ireland to a UK show they had seen reported online… but it was merely a provisional booking of an arena. We contacted the website saying please alter the story to reflect that it is provisional, but their attitude was ‘well, that won’t get us any hits’. �
Q: The Irish and Scottish fans are asking when they will be getting event?
MZ: We will go back to Dublin for sure. It is just a matter of when. The O2 Arena Dublin is a magnificent venue, I actually think there’s not a more perfect venue for a UFC event anywhere as the fans are almost on top of the Octagon. But the fact is it holds less than 10,000 seats whereas the the biggest two arenas in the British Isles are the O2 in London and the MEN Arena in Manchester, which hold almost double what the other venues do. They are also the two venues that the biggest percentage of our ticket-buyers can reach and, obviously, twice as many fans can get in and see the show. So, obviously, as the years go by Manchester and London are always going to get the first look. I really don’t think anyone won’t understand the reasoning on this. As for Scotland we have said time and again that it is just a lack of a venue that meets our size needs. Good news there is a new venue being built in Scotland which should meet our needs.�
Q: Is one of the pieces to this puzzle that the UFC UK business relies on the US TV and PPV money?
MZ: The reality is these are $million plus events to produce-in fact many millions. And, as a result, the company has to generate revenue to get meet those costs. We generate the most revenue out of the US for our TV programming-whether PPV, Spike or Versus. That revenue is a key component to making these events profitable. So we need our US partners and without them, the events can’t happen. This will change at some point once all of our foreign territories begin to generate the fees to cover the costs to produce.
Q: If the UK shows were in the middle of the night, though, like major boxing shows in the UK are, to suit US PPV, would that help?
When we came back to this market in 2007, that idea was dismissed pretty quickly. We wanted UK fans to have the full UFC experience – which means getting home at a reasonable hour. But in Australia we do the first fight about 10am Sunday morning to suit US TV and US PPV and that works and some of the UK press and fans are suggesting they would be happy to drink a gallon of coffee and be in the arena all night if it meant UFC 127 type events coming to these shore.
It is something we are taking another look at. I don’t think there’s any real movement on this, but I think it is worth another look. We’d be a little nervous about it, like we were with the shows starting an hour earlier, and we’d really need to talk to our UK fans to see if this is something which they’d be happy with.
Q: It was only last winter when you were saying that the UFC would be running 4 -6 UK shows in 2010. Now it appears that it could be zero…
MZ: Yes, and maybe we shouldn’t have announced those plans but with us, from Dana and Lorenzo down, we give honest answers to honest questions. We’ve have advanced plans for a series of Fight Night style events for the UK and Ireland, and actually Europe, but we couldn’t get it over the line for this year but that’s still a major initiative for the UK office. We are looking at venues right now, and will be going to some cities that you will never have thought you’d see a UFC. But, if I was asked the question ‘How many UK shows do you think they will be in 2012?’, and I gave an honest answer I would again say it could be four or more. �
Q: What do you say to fans who say even when the UFC does shows here, they aren’t great shows? A lot of fans say there’ve been too many Bisping main events here.
MZ: I totally disagree. I think the mistake here is believing the most vocal fans on the forums represent the majority and, really, they don’t. Taking the point about Mike headlining, he was a proven headliner in the US with UFC 78 long before he headlined here in the UK with UFC 89. UFC 89 was a massive success. In fact, as far as UFC programming or products with Mike involved, everything with Mike is a success. Whenever he fights, ESPN sees a spike in the ratings. Whenever Channel FIVE shows a replay of a Bisping fight, it does great numbers. Last year over 1000 people showed up in a Glasgow high street store to meet him. There’s no question that Mike – and I’ll bring Dan Hardy in as a close second, too – is the most popular UFC fighter in the UK by a long way. The fans and the press love him in the UK.
I really don’t think there’s any British fighter other than David Haye who even comes close to Mike’s popularity and to say the UK fans don’t want to see him is just nonsense. And, while I’m defending Mike, because I read the stick he gets on the forums, I should add he’s third for Fight of the Nights in UFC history too.�
Q: Another criticism you see a on the forums is that the UK events, when they happen, are not the greatest cards…
MZ: Again, I think that’s the grumblings of a couple of vocal fans. And I don’t think it is accurate either. With UFC 105, for example, which was the previous record holder for Europe before UFC 120, the show had three TUF winners in hard fights, Randy Couture and the first ever final eliminator featuring a Brit, Dan Hardy.�
And we actually improved the card after it was nearly sold out. It was only after we had barely 1000 tickets left that we added Randy Couture as a main event plus the card got even better when Dan Hardy was put in a No1 contender fight with Mike Swick after his original opponent pulled out. Do you think any boxing promoter would augment a card that was already a guarantee sell out?
And I think UFC 80 in Newcastle was probably one of the best five events in company history.�
Q: Do you think the fans are being unfair, then?
MZ: No, I think we have some of the most passionate fans in sport. That’s great, and it also sometimes means they get frustrated and, when that happens, there aren’t shy about letting us know about it. I get it. Everyone at the UFC gets it. Our fans are no different to football fans who get pissed off at the directors of their team or Ferrari F1 fans going nuts that the latest F1 car isn’t winning every race.�
Q: Some UK fans, maybe the vocal handful you are talking about, say Australia is getting better cards.
MZ: Well that sort of makes me smile as Bisping has been a main attraction on both Aussie cards. I think UFC 110 and UFC 127 were great event, but, personally, I think UFC 75 with the first ever UFC v PRIDE title fight, UFC 80 with Penn winning the belt and all those KOs, and UFC 105 – just for the atmosphere – were some of the best shows we’ve done. And I am responsible for the Aussie shows as well as the UK shows; I’ve got no dog in this fight.�
Q: So what’s the message to the UK fans?
MZ: The UK market remains very important to us and over the next five, 10, 15 years the UK will host some massive events. 2010 may not have worked out as well as say, 2007, but sometimes things don’t shake loose they way they need to. I know our fans will continue to support us-we have great programming on ESPN that when compared to other key markets for us is the best deal going. We will work hard as a company to continue to build our fans support and loyalty. There is not more important job we have.