UFC Brings the Energy of Live Events to Digital With Authentic, Up-Close Content Experiences

How the largest mixed martial arts promotion used social media as an always-on channel when fans needed it the most

PERTH, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 25: The UFC Featherweight Championship belt of Alex Volkanovski is pictured before a UFC press conference at RAC Arena on February 25, 2020 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Zuffa LLC)

UFC is the world’s premier mixed martial arts promotion with more than 625 million fans worldwide and events that are broadcast to over 900 million homes in more than 175 countries in 40 different languages. As with many sports organizations in the past year, the Las Vegas-based company had its share of hard decisions to make.

Despite challenges of maintaining core revenue streams, live programming, and broadcast obligations in the middle of a pandemic, David Shaw, Senior Vice President of International and Content, said the past year presented new opportunities to engage fans. Shaw, who manages UFC’s global strategy and content, said the company did this by staying true to their core strengths, adapting quickly to changes, planning meticulously, and creating consistent and engaging content.

Hosting Live Events During a Pandemic

Under UFC President Dana White’s leadership, the company was able to host the first major sporting event in the United States following global shutdowns and maintained a consistent schedule through the remainder of the year.

After sporting events across the world were put on pause because of the pandemic, UFC’s leadership moved quickly to launch new protocols to protect athletes and staff.  UFC developed a comprehensive health and safety plan, as well as a COVID-19 testing program, which has become the gold standard among professional sports.

“We have the benefit of being a nimble team with a long history of considering athlete and operational safety. This was, in a sense, an extension of what our operations teams live and breathe every day,” said Shaw. “We felt confident that we had built a comprehensive and robust plan that we could put into practice.”

Location was also a major factor in UFC’s success model as UFC APEX, the company’s new state-of-the-art production facility, became UFC’s home arena during the pandemic, allowing UFC to continue producing events.  UFC also produced international events on UFC FIGHT ISLAND, which consisted of a ‘safety zone’ that was only open to UFC athletes, staff, and other essential personnel.  

Offering Meaningful Content to Stay True to the Experience

With the plan in place in order to continue to host fights, Shaw focused on UFC’s next challenge: getting fans to experience fights remotely.  Shaw’s goal was to offer a new digital experience that was akin to being in an arena by delivering meaningful and comprehensive content to fans when they needed it the most.

Early in the pandemic, archival content was resurrected in successful campaigns including UFC Eras and The Ultimate Fighter Month (#TUFMonth). Both allowed fans to relive memorable moments, legacy events, and key chapters in UFC’s history. 

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“We felt we were losing a crucial connection point, which was the live audience. Social media had to step up and fill the gap for our fanbase, irrespective of where they were,” said Shaw. 

As UFC returned to producing events, they kept their social teams nimble, working to match the energy of a live event on digital platforms:

  • UFC engaged week-after-week to guess the next event location and athlete matchups
  • Athletes worked to interact with fans to give them a one-on-one connection
  • Quick Hits with Laura Sanko featured in-arena interviews as athletes walked out and backstage interviews kept fans hyped up as they watched from home
  • Dana White polled fans to see who they thought should earn post-fight bonuses

In June, the creation of UFC FIGHT ISLAND captured the imagination of the sports world while becoming a new multi-million-dollar live event brand. Dana White and UFC kept fans buzzing throughout the announcement on where the location of #FightIsland was and who would headline the first card.

The results were impressive:

  • In July 2020, UFC had over 3.6 billion impressions, a 54% increase compared to July 2019
  • Throughout 2020, UFC registered over 40 billion impressions, a 70% increase compared to 2019
  • UFC more than doubled their interactions year-over-year, registering almost 800 million likes, comments, and shares

With everyone working remotely, it was important for us to maintain authenticity that is so easily identifiable with the UFC world. Social played a huge role, not only in the consistent and increased delivery of content, but it also allowed us to maintain a good connection point with our audiences all around the world in meaningful ways. Tuning into their needs using Socialbakers’ data insights, we could focus on developing content that was really resonating with our fan base. 

David Shaw, Senior Vice President of International and Content, UFC

Bringing Fans Closer to Fighters with Global, Local Strategies

One of the main drivers of engagement for UFC at this time was the athletes and the cultural impact their stories have across the globe. Social media made it possible for fans to get a personal look into the lives of athletes and connect in a more authentic way. 

“The roots of our sport originate in different communities all over the world. And the reach of MMA today allows us to connect with different people globally. Our true success is because of the athletes. There’s nothing like having a local star to build interest in a specific region,” said Shaw. 

UFC’s content strategy uses the power of global reach to deliver market-specific content experiences that will really resonate. Shaw shared how in every region, there’s the balance of adhering to the brand principles and storyline guidelines dictated by the production team, but there is so much to be gained in regional content too.

“There’s a lot of autonomy given to our regional teams to adapt content in such a way that’s culturally appropriate for the audience in that particular region,” said Shaw. “That’s something we are becoming more in-tune with and prioritizing.  In order for us to be as successful as we can be, it’s incumbent on us to localize our content offering to ensure we can reach the largest audience possible.”

Turning Challenges Into Takeaways for the Future 

With the give and take of global and local content strategies working in parallel, one thing is never compromised. “What might change is language, but consistent quality and standards are maintained from event to event, irrespective of location,” said Shaw. In the changing environment, this commitment to quality led them to reimagine their broadcast-quality shows. 

Shows like Inside the Octagon, where commentators provide in-depth analysis and preview top-featured athletes, still had to go on, even without access to production houses. Shaw explained how UFC could deliver on the exemplary production quality they’re known for and keep the momentum going for the future: “We took concepts that already work on traditional television, applied them to digital, and distributed them to an audience across social media. In the future, even when we’re allowed to travel again, we can now be smarter about production because we have the strategy in place to produce remotely.”

UFC anticipates that 2021 will largely mirror 2020. They plan to keep their mode of operation, while growing the success of the content they’ve been creating.

We’ll be doing more to grow our social presence and build on the successes of the partnerships with Facebook TikTok, and Snapchat. With more time under our belt, and with Socialbakers as our partner, we’re more informed on what the audience wants to see. 

David Shaw, Senior Vice President of International and Content, UFC
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