The UFC sets up another powerhouse

With Ronda Rousey continuing to blow up social media, the UFC is preparing its own assault on the digital world as it looks to beef up UFC Fight Pass. The company announced last week that it was bringing in Yahoo Sports streaming guru Eric Winter as Senior Vice President and General Manager of the OTT platform, and he will now determine how the UFC will reach fans in the years ahead, programming for audiences that are literally around the world, accessing its content 24 hours a day.

Cynopsis Sports spoke with Winter and Marshall Zelaznik, Chief Content Officer at the UFC, about the hire, the viewing habits of UFC fans and what we can expect from the platform in the years ahead.

Zelaznik on launching Fight Pass: First of all, Fight Pass was really built as a way to distribute our out-of-market sports package. We had objectives to drive new primetime content in markets like Asia and we were looking for a distribution outlet for those outside of those regions. That is because all the live product we sell is primarily from the US, so events delivered to Asia took place either early Sunday morning or very late Saturday night for those markets. Our commitment with FOX Sports had already been secured so it was a matter of figuring out how we distribute these events.

On growth: We also knew that we were sitting on a massive library and so the idea was to try to build this OTT platform on top of the existing platform we were using for our linear, a la carte PPV offering. So at the end of 2013, we literally launched in about a four-month window. The strategy was about making a complimentary product to our TV offering. We are still a PPV company, we are still in the business of distributing content through our linear networks and this was a way to compliment all of those products by offering a product for hardcore fans. It ended up blowing away any of the modeling we did and the growth continues to be beyond our expectations.

On hiring Winter: This concept has been proven and we literally built it on an existing structure and an existing staff base, and Eric is now coming in with really the goal and objective to take this to the next level. What are we missing? We can we do better? We are really looking forward to Eric living and breathing Fight Pass so that we can make this a major revenue driven and growth area for our business. All of the information we have about our customers and their usage and what they like about UFC and other MMA product that we have and offer. We know what they are watching, and we’ve seen the increase in viewership around live events so when we have a Fight Pass event or when we have an exclusive Fight Pass prelim, we can see an increase in subscribers and an increased usage. But there is so much more to understand about this product that someone with Eric’s background will be able to come in and get us smarter about the product so we can mold it to the customers’ needs.

Winter on taking the job: I started my corporate career at DIRECTV and DIRECTV Sports in 1997, and I ultimately took over the PPV events marketing team where it was our job to get the best content in front of the audience. I remember a young woman walking into my office with a tape who asked me to take a look at something called the UFC. I had never head of the acronym. My first UFC event in person was actually in 2003 for the Liddell/Couture fight. So I learned about the UFC early on, and later got recruited to Yahoo as they were launching Yahoo Sports. I came in to sign deals and manage existing relationships for Yahoo and the first deal I did was actually with Dana White. Nobody at Yahoo understood what the UFC was at that time. Yahoo has since been a long-term partner with the UFC and it has been very successful.

Marshall on next steps: While there is still some legacy business such as live events that we will continue to offer our audiences, we have literally given him a blank slate to look at the business, figure it out and become an entrepreneur. We want him to have the independence to make those decisions so that was the promise.

Winter on his strategy: I’ve been a subscriber of and Fight Pass since the beginning days of both. The way users are consuming content is rapidly changing. We don’t get to sit on the couch as much as we want to. My vision is that we are a mobile-first company and we need to think about the needs of the consumers wherever they are and deliver them with great content. Our responsibility is to deliver content live and on-demand to users wherever they are. Usage habits will tell them what they want and why they want it. Until then, live events rule.

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