Asked what it’s like to run the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the ruling franchise of the mixed martial arts world, Dana White doesn’t mince words. “This job is insanity,” he says. “Every morning when I wake up, bad shit happens.” It may sound insensitive to say as much, White adds, “but when human beings are your product, bad things happen.”
Then again, for a brand built on men climbing into a ring and mauling each another, bad things are supposed to happen—it’s what fans pay to see. And that fact has put White in a position few other marketers find themselves. Because when your job is crafting violence into entertainment, you either feel it in your bones or you don’t. And Dana White does.
“I’ve been in the fight business my whole life,” says UFC president White. “I’m still fucking in love with this thing like it was the first day. It’s all about the fights. I always believed that this thing could be a global brand, because I don’t care what color you are, I don’t care what country you come from, I don’t care what language you speak: fighting is in our DNA. It doesn’t have to be explained to us.”
Another thing that’s in White’s DNA is branding. When he took over in 2001, the league was on the ropes. With casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, White bought in for $2 million. By 2008, Forbes estimated UFC’s worth at $1 billion. (It is most certainly worth far more today.) UFC has attracted major brand partners and has even spawned a chain of gyms.
White built the UFC empire methodically and relentlessly. First, in a sport notorious for having no rules, White “ran toward regulation,” as he puts it—understanding that UFC had to join the mainstream to win more fans. As UFC has drawn in the masses, White has kept them engaged via social media. Presiding over a following north of 2 million, he tweets all day long—and never pulls punches. (An example: “I love tweeting with people up watching @UFCFightPass all the #dickheads went to bed!!!”)
White also worked to create celebrities within the UFC universe, figuring that a good fight needs someone to root for. The results are MMA gods including Quentin Jackson and Ronda Rousey (a cultural phenom who is now a part of Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables franchise.) In fact, White believes that fighters (“badasses” is his preferred term) have a longer shelf life than other celebrity athletes. “Ask people all around the world who Muhammad Ali is, who Mike Tyson is, who Bruce Lee is,” he points out, and they will know. Just try that with a cricket star.
But his greatest marketing moves have been in the media arena. With the Octagon (a 750-square-foot pen) as UFC’s stage, White has built the franchise into the largest pay-per-view event on the planet, with 40 live fights per year and an overall presence of 1 billion viewers in 149 counties. That reach has a lot to do with Fox Sports Media Group, which White inked a deal with three years ago.
The group’s COO Eric Shanks says that White’s production acumen is unique. He recalls a discussion he had with White about the “walkouts,” the two-and-a-half-minute journey a fighter takes from locker room to ring. To quicken the pacing for broadcast, Shanks suggested a commercial break during the walkout. Dana “practically fell on the floor and had a heart attack,” Shanks relates. “He said, ‘You absolutely cannot do that. That’s part of the anticipation!’”
Says Shanks, “He knows what the fans want.”
View the Brand Genius winner class of 2014:
Paul Crandell, GoPro | Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle | Michelle N. Fernandez, Canon USA | Camille M. Gibson, General Mills | Trudy Hardy, BMW of North America | Matt Jauchius, Nationwide | Quinn Kilbury, Newcastle Brown Ale | David Melançon, Benjamin Moore & Co. | Shane Smith, Vice | Dana White, UFC