The success of any given sport in the digital age is about far more than its inherent appeal. Global outreach, effective branding and broadcasting, iconic athletes - there are a host of factors at play determining which sports are more or less popular at any given time. UFC - the world’s largest MMA promotion - has benefited from effective use of one of the more recent growth factors: social media.
To anyone not familiar with MMA, it’s like boxing but you can kick, pin, knee, and choke your opponent. The gloves are minimal, the ring is an octagonal cage, and, if you’ve never seen it before, you might be shocked by the sheer lack of apparent rules. More high-octane than boxing, MMA has grown rapidly over the past two decades; what began as a means to determine the most effective form of martial arts through unrestricted competition has morphed into a sport in its own right, adopting rules and regulations to broaden its mainstream appeal while holding onto its brutality.
The UFC’s success on social media has been evident in its numbers. For a relatively niche sport to have 20 million followers across its different social media channels, with 80 brand accounts, is seriously impressive given that it has only been around for 24 years. Last year, UFC 200 was one of the most successful events in the competition’s history. According to Forbes, it made ‘over 13 billion impressions, 3.2 million engagements on Facebook, 246 million impressions on Vine, their custom UFC 200 emoji was used over one million times, their Instagram had 4.3 million engagements, and they gained over 270,000 new fans across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram during the event.’
Part of the secret to UFC’s success has been a willingness to embrace new channels. Shanda Maloney, director of Digital Marketing and Social Media for UFC, said: ‘Keep up on new platforms and understand that your audience is engaged on those platforms. If you are going to have a voice in the space, create content that is unique to that platform/audience. Don’t assume the best practice is to push the same content across every platform.’
That being said, there is a danger for all brands looking to exploit social media that in trying to have a presence on each one you can spread yourself too thin, and UFC is committed to giving the best possible experience on each channel. Something the body is hoping to bring to both its social media output and its wider coverage is real-time statistics. Analysis and insight has become a vital part of all sports broadcasting, and not least in a sport where bouts are often frantic and short-lived. Viewers want more than just the flurry of the fight; they want expert analysis, statistics, and predictions.
Kristin Adams, former UFC social media manager, said: ‘Social media is very important to us moving forward. You can reach anyone, anywhere in the world and we have fans everywhere. The more we grow and go international, the more people we’re going to want to connect with and keep up-to-date on the cool stuff going on with UFC.’ This emphasis on social media is reflected in the online presence of its president, Dana White. With over 4.6 million followers on Twitter, White’s influence online dwarfs that of former FIFA president Sepp Blatter (2.53 million followers) and FA chairman Greg Dyke (little over 1000 followers). White’s output is constant and focuses heavily on multimedia posts, evidence of the president’s savvy understanding of what builds a following.
UFC 215 is set to take place on September 9 in Edmonton. You can bet on that in the build up to and aftermath of the event, the social media output will be made up of inventive and engaging content. During the event, the body will look to provide its fans with to-the-minute statistics and insight to exploit growing second-screen usage among sports fans.UFC has also been presented a major opportunity in the form of its unparalleled star, Conor McGregor, taking on boxing legend Floyd Mayweather in a fight that is predicted to make hundreds of millions of dollars. The fight is unlikely to go the UFC man’s way, nor is it likely to even be a close contest. UFC is accustomed to being the underdog, though, and if its track record is anything to go by, it’ll be well placed to exploit the publicity.