In 1993, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship aired. With no weight classes and virtually no rules (even head butts and groin shots were allowed) for some the violence was too much. Others, on the other hand, simply couldn’t get enough.
UFC 1, as it was later numbered, was a 86,500 buy pay-per-view hit, ensuring the originally intended one-off was repeated over and over. By UFC 12, however, the controversy generated by the events was reaching fever pitch. They were banned in dozens of US states and dropped by the country’s major pay-per-view distributor.
Many, especially the millions in the largely untapped international audience, turned to piracy to stay in touch, with VHS videos of the events passed around among the passionate and growing fanbase.
After introducing more rules banning the most frowned upon fighting techniques and mandating the use of gloves, the UFC was back on course to bring in the money, but by late 2000 it was all going wrong.
Then in 2001, casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta stepped in and saved the UFC from bankruptcy with a $2m buyout. It was to be a golden investment.
Mainstream success for the UFC came on the back of the TV series ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ and the huge following it created. UFC 52 in 2005 generated more than 300,000 pay-per-view buys, doubling the previous best audience, with UFC 57 climbing to more than 400,000.
In 2006, things exploded. UFC 60 pulled in 620,000, UFC 61 clocked up 775,000, with UFC 66 generating a massive 1 million buys on pay-per-view.
Labeled by Time Magazine as “the fastest growing sports brand in the United States,” in 2007 it was reported by Forbes that the UFC was now worth a staggering $1 billion.
Despite this incredible success story and the huge wealth that accompanied it, in December 2009 UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta testified at a hearing of the US House Judiciary Committee on how piracy on the Internet affects live broadcasting. He claimed that his company is losing millions of dollars to the phenomenon.
“Just last month, the broadcast of UFC 106 from the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada, had over 271 unauthorized streams with over 140,000 views, and those are the ones that our anti-piracy team and consultants identified,” Fertitta reported. “There were likely more streams that we simply couldn’t find.”
Fertitta criticized sites like Justin.tv for carrying the streams, with ESPN Executive Vice President Ed Durso going on to name others involved including UstreamTV, LiveStream, TVU, channelsurfing.net, adthe.net, Sopcast, TVAnts, and myp2p.eu.
While UFC 104 pulled in a very respectable 450,000 buys, at just 350,000 the figures for UFC 106 had proven a disappointment, which is probably why the company singled out that event as a victim of piracy. Fertitta didn’t mention them, but other factors had affected the sales.
Ex-WWE star Brock Lesnar was due to fight at the event and had to pull out with illness and the replacement fight clearly didn’t mean enough for people to hand over around $50 to see it. With UFC 105 having aired free on TV the week before, casual fans had perhaps seen enough fighting for one month.
With a great fight card at UFC 107, however, it was good times revisited with pay-per-view buys rocketing to 620,000. Good product, good sales.
But according to the company, these pay-per-view buys aren’t generating enough money for the UFC. In a new interview, UFC President Dana White has confirmed that his company is readying a legal assault on sites offering unauthorized streams of their content.
For a company of their size, no-one should be surprised at this development. However, the next revelation will have eyebrows raising all over. The UFC will now, RIAA-style, go after individuals who pirate their content online.
“When people start going to jail,” says White, “people will stop doing it.”
After trying the cease and desist route in dealing with illicit content, White, who is famous for not being able to speak a sentence without cursing, says UFC are ready for the next level.
“It’s going to be a battle, man,” he said. “It’s going to be a battle, but I’m ready to (expletive) fight,” he said. “We’re gonna go after them, we’re gonna go after them hard, and we’re gonna hurt em.”
Lawrence Epstein, general legal counsel for the UFC, said the UFC could subpoena sites in order to gain the IP address of people who are illegally downloading and sharing UFC events.
Bizarrely, Dana White acknowledges that suing sites and individuals will cost a hell of a lot of money, more in fact than the UFC claim to lose from piracy.
“(Piracy) hasn’t cost us anything compared to what it’s going to cost us to go after these guys. It’s gonna cost us a lot of money, but guess what – it’s gonna cost them a lot of money. It’s gonna get to the point where it’s like, you know what, (expletive) it, maybe we shouldn’t pirate MMA any more,” he explains.
Interestingly, UFC commentator Joe Rogan, a long-time fan-favorite who is about to become even more popular with many viewers, doesn’t agree with proposed crackdown.
“I think that kind of stifles innovation. It stifles the direction the internet is going. I like things being out there,” he said.
“They’re trying to protect their money,” he concludes, adding, “but the internet is a strange animal.”
Having watched hundreds of hours of Jiu-Jitsu, what Dana White and the Fertitta brothers should realize by now is that for every move, there is a counter move, for every counter there is yet another counter. UFC will soon discover that it’s not possible to knock out, choke out or otherwise submit piracy on the Internet. Their opponents know all the moves – and then some.
But beyond that, forcing everyday UFC fans to tap out in court under a barrage of legal strikes is plain lunacy. This is a fight that cannot be won by force.