By Philip O’Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – As part of a drive to increase its popularity in Europe, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is focusing on home-grown talent, and on running events at times of the day which are more convenient for local fans.
And the changes for the sport, which was once denounced as “human cockfighting” by US senator John McCain, are being well received.
At the end of a Sunday night fight a great roar ripped through the Globen arena in Stockholm as UFC light heavyweight Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson finally downed Glover Teixeira for good in the fifth round.
It had been a gruelling battle in front of a partisan home crowd, with the hometown favorite eventually sending the Brazilian crashing to floor. For once, the 12,668 fans at the Swedish event did not have to stay up all night to see their hero in action.
The last time Gustafsson fought in Stockholm – a knockout loss to Anthony Johnson – it was in the early hours of the morning to suit the American TV audience that is the UFC’s bread and butter.
“No excuses, I lost that fight to Anthony, but it’s not fun for anyone to fight late nights, early mornings. This fits me much better,” Gustafsson told a media conference after the event.
This time, Gustafsson stepped into the octagon at around half past nine in the evening in Sweden – or around midday back at the UFC headquarters in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“In a perfect world, all of our European fights would be in prime time for our broadcast partners here,” Joe Carr, the UFC’s senior vice president of international business, told Reuters.
Discussions with American broadcast partner Fox Sports led to some early Sunday slots in the US that enabled the UFC to run events like the one in Stockholm at local time.
The problem for the UFC is that title fights are done on pay-per-view TV in the US, and even when they take place in Europe, they follow American scheduling.
“Last year we had a championship fight in Manchester with (British fighter Michael) Bisping, but that was on in the middle of the night in the UK and Europe, which really doesn’t do much for us there,” Carr explained.
However, Europe is growing in importance for the flagship organization of mixed martial arts.
“Since 2013, 2014 our total rights revenue in Europe has tripled, it’s grown pretty quickly. We have a few new deals, but the market is not mature when compared to other markets, so we have a ton of room for growth.”
For 28-year-old Robin Berg, the six-hour drive from his home in Oslo, Norway, to the Swedish capital to see a fight card featuring Scandinavian fighters running on local time was a small sacrifice.
“It’s brilliant,” said Berg, a recruitment consultant who has been a fan of the UFC since 2010 and regularly stays up all night to watch fights from the USA.
“I believe Europe will grow as a place for martial arts. The biggest talents previously came from Brazil and the USA, but more and more of them are coming from Europe,” he said.
UFC executive Carr said that “talent development and finding local heroes” are essential to successful European events, and there were several other Nordic-based fighters on the Stockholm bill to attract fans like Berg.
Indeed, four of the UFC’s 11 current champions are Europeans, including lightweight title-holder Conor McGregor, who is the biggest draw the sport currently has.
Spurred on by his popularity, the sport has become mainstream, with fight gyms offering boxing and Brazilian jiu- jitsu opening in cities all over Europe.
The UFC has also scheduled fight nights in Scotland, Poland and Netherlands this year, and a new TV deal in the US will take European considerations into account, Carr says.
“It’s about ensuring the quality of the events and ensuring those events are in prime time, and not doing big shows at three or six in the morning there,” he told Reuters.
For Gustafsson, the victory itself wasn’t enough – he went down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend Moa in the octagon directly after the bout.
With drama like that, ratings should not be a worry.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Andrew Bolton)