As the National Football League spun into an abyss of finger pointing and legal action this past week, the Ultimate Fighting Championship made a brilliant, under-the-radar power play by acquiring Strike Force - the last remaining hurdle to unifying the sport under one organization. The UFC may appear like an upstart against the NFL powerhouse in terms of fan base, revenue and reputation, but securing absolute ownership of the elite athletes of the sport signals that Dana White and company are an entertainment force to be reckoned with. Bringing together the sport under one brand allows greater fan loyalty, more marketing opportunities and exponential revenue growth. It's a game-changer within an industry historically dominated by the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.
But now the UFC has been elevated to the elite club of sports entertainment organizations. And like most grassroots movements, the mainstream media and politicians are the last to realize it.
It wasn't long ago that baseball, hailed as American as apple pie, was the nation's pastime. Even with the Super Bowl as the most watched TV event of the year, football couldn't knock baseball from its throne. Then the 1994 MLB strike happened. Fans revolted and were forced to consider other entertainment options, giving football a fresh look. Although today's baseball ticket prices, player salaries and annual revenues show the sport is as strong as ever, the '94 strike gave the NFL a chance to earn fans' loyalty and permanently change the pecking order of professional sports. Baseball executives and players can be pleased that a crisis was averted but there is still that creeping feeling of "what if?"
The inherent violence in the UFC will likely never win over enough of the female population for it to take the throne as America's top sport, but those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The NFL is heading for a drop-off that is entirely avoidable and the UFC is poised to take advantage of it if it happens. Americans have always had a love affair with sports - all types of sports. The spirit of teamwork and personal growth and the hope of fame and fortune is inherent on American little league fields, Saturday soccer schedules and high school locker rooms. NFL fans will look elsewhere for their entertainment if there is a strike and there are plenty of options.
And Dana White is ready. The UFC has risen from its humble beginnings in 1993 to surpass the one billion dollar mark; and it's now broadcasting in more than 130 countries. Fighters Randy Couture and Quinton Jackson are crossover successes and starred in two Hollywood blockbusters last year - The Expendables and The A-Team, respectively. When Charlie Sheen's fight with Chuck Lorre and CBS erupted, he name dropped the octagon - the UFC's standard fight structure - as the place to bring his tiger blood and fire-breathing fists. And the UFC is one of the premiere case studies of how social media can deliver when done right. White's embrace of Twitter showcases his strong personality and fan-appeal and he has personally won over legions of paying followers with his unparalleled direct dialogue. With a rabid and growing fan base, the UFC's ceiling is nowhere in sight.
As the NFL's labor situation spirals out of control and with the NBA only a few months from a similar fate, UFC's owner Zuffa LLC and White are surely brushing up on their history. The redneck, uncouth reputation that's unfairly been attached to the UFC like a scarlet letter is starting to fade. Don't let the tattoos, dark music and gallons of blood spilled on the mat fool you, this is a multi-billion dollar industry.
The political elites in Washington, financial whizs on Wall Street and studio heads in Hollywood ignore the sport at their own peril. An economic impact report last year determined the sport could generate $25 million a year in benefits to New York alone if the state allows fights to be held and regulated. That's based on holding only two events. In the midst of the financial crisis, legislators in Albany and Washington, DC have foolishly failed to ignore the sport. And taxpayers should be outraged.
You don't have to be a football or mixed martial arts fan to appreciate the spectacle of an American sports entertainment industry rising to world-wide prominence. It's a uniquely American story that should be celebrated by even government tax collectors.
Richard Grenell served as the Spokesman for the U.S. Ambassador to the UN during the Bush Administration. He has spent the last 18 years working for politicians including former NY Governor George Pataki and Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee Dave Camp, to name a few.
Brad Chase has worked with dozens of FORTUNE 500 companies over the last 10 years as a strategic media advisory. He is currently a partner with Los Angeles-based Capitol Media Partners.