© The Canadian Press
Fighters Georges St-Pierre (left) and Nick Diaz are separated by UFC president Dana White during the weigh-in for UFC 158 in Montreal on Friday. St-Pierre dominated the bout. Tom Wright says his frequent dealings with both White and St-Pierre are excellent.
Tom Wright knows that his job is never going to be popular with everyone.
The former CFL commissioner, who now serves as director of UFC operations in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, admits that there is a large contingent of people who will never have any interest in the UFC or mixed martial arts.
He’s fine with that, as long as they judge the sport on its merits and not the popular but incorrect notion that it’s unrestrained violence.
“It’s OK for them to not like our sport but in fact there are lots of rules,” he says. “There are the unified set of rules that are followed around the world, there’s a specific number of fouls, there’s standards in terms of protection with gloves, mouth guards … There are tons of rules.”
He adds that he’s not a fan of NASCAR, even while he respects the people in the industry, so the decision to follow any sport remains uniquely personal.
He says combat sports have a unique global appeal that hasn’t translated to other sports. For instance, hockey won’t make inroads in Brazil and cricket won’t be big here.
But there’s a draw to a good fight that crosses nationalities.
As a result, the global competition for events is fierce. Wright says that with emerging markets like China and India, transitional markets like Europe and Mexico and core markets in the United States, Canada, Brazil and Australia, there aren’t enough events to go around.
The organization recently announced that Winnipeg will host UFC 161 on June 15. Wright says he received tweets from cities around the country asking why it wasn’t in their city.
Canada has long been called an MMA hotbed by UFC president Dana White, the brash, foul-mouthed leader of the organization.
The UFC is doing 33 events in the world this year, with 13 pay-per-views. Canada will host three of them.
“When you think about it, right now we have 10 per cent of the global events and almost a quarter of the pay-per-views,” he said. “And there’s less than 35 million people here.”
Demand for the organization’s product was shown when UFC 149 shattered a record last July at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary. The card earned a $4.1 million gate, erasing the previous mark set by the Rolling Stones.
An undeniable part of the UFC’s rapid ascent is due to White, who enjoys a closeness to fans unique in professional sports.
Wright says that White has to be true to his passionate personality. While they make an unlikely duo, Wright says they work well together.
“I love working with Dana. He and I are really good friends,” Wright says. “I respect him and he respects me.
“People looked at me when I took this job and said I can’t believe mild-mannered Tom Wright -- he’s with the Special Olympics, he has three daughters, he wouldn’t say s..t if his mouth was full of it -- how do you reconcile that? My answer was that it’s a perfect fit. I’m a complement to him. Dana has forgotten more about the UFC than I’ll ever know but Dana doesn’t know anything about Canada.”
White does know about business. He is a minority partner in the UFC, which is owned by Zuffa, a company formed by the Fertitta brothers who head up the Station Casinos empire. Another 10 per cent of the business is owned by an Abu Dhabi company called Flash Entertainment.
The value of the company they purchased in 2001 for $2 million is now estimated in the billions.
The organization signed a seven-year American TV deal with Fox Sports in August, 2011 with a reported, estimated annual value of $90 million to $100 million per year.
The UFC set a commercial earnings record across Canada with the last fight in bars and restaurants on pay-per-view. One Prince Albert nightclub that showed the fight card on Saturday played almost entirely to a room of couples.
UFC research shows that the percentage gender split is currently about 65-35 in favour of males but shrinking.
The first women’s fight in the UFC, which was held last month, promises to further reduce the gender gap.
“It’s very much a social sport,” Wright says. “You can share it with your friends, your wife, your girlfriend, your children. There’s a whole bunch of that sort of stuff. That’s one of the real appeals.
“It’s really a sport of the next generation.”
Wright’s job is made easier by the presence of Georges St-Pierre, the photogenic 170-pound champion with a record of 24-2. The bilingual Montrealer has proven to be a popular, well-spoken ambassador for the sport.
“I completely acknowledge that and give full props for it,” Wright said of his Canadian superstar. “No question, 2012 was a tough year for us because he only fought once and he usually fights at least a couple of times.”
Wright’s day-to-day tasks involve a lot of planning and work with the UFC’s marketing and broadcast partners. He also travels to Australia and New Zealand while responding to media demands on his time.
His office of 10 also looks after merchandising and DVD sales. Wright says it’s actually a lot like his CFL job, without the board of directors, he jokes.
“I’m a very lucky guy,” he said. “I work with great people, I work for a great brand, I work in a great country, I have a great wife, I have great daughters, I have my health.
“I’m a blessed guy.”
More good luck could be on the way for a sport that will never appeal to everyone.
With an expansion of the UFC’s popular reality show The Ultimate Fighter around the world, more UFC gyms opening and a new UFC videogame coming out on EA Sports, the conditions are right for further growth in the sport.
“There are all sorts of opportunities to convert fringe or casual fans into the core fans,” he says. “But we recognize that’s there’s going to be a constituency out there who are never going to be a fan and that’s OK.”