The UFC’s announcement that it will hold its first event in France on September 3 at the Accor Arena in Paris follows a decade-long effort to enter France, where MMA was illegal until a while ago. two years. It also underlines the organization’s desire to become a global brand with local connections. The move will allow France’s roughly 4 million fans to watch French broadcasts – instead of foreign imports – and celebrate French fighters, such as top heavyweight contender Ciryl Gane.
The UFC’s entry into France was “complicated”, said executive vice president and chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein. Sportico in a phone interview, before adding that his league was “determined” to make it happen.
The complexity reflects the structure of organized sports in France, where there is a cabinet-level sports minister who has substantial authority over which sports are legal and how they are managed. This arrangement contrasts with the United States, where the leagues are largely autonomous private companies and where states and municipalities regulate sports for health and safety reasons.
A major hurdle for the UFC was a 2016 decree from Thierry Braillard, then France’s sports minister. The executive order banned MMA over objections to “human dignity”, including the use of fenced arenas, which were likened to cages. For many years, MMA insiders viewed the ministry as closely tied to the Judo Federation, a potential economic rival to an MMA league.
France also uses what has been described as a “bottom-up” model for sport. Under it, a sport generally takes on professional characteristics only after substantial development at the amateur level under the watchful eye of an amateur federation. UFC fights could therefore not take place in France while MMA itself was not structured.
Epstein, a seasoned lawyer who served as the UFC’s point person for legal and legislative projects, and other UFC officials traveled to France during the 2010s to present on MMA, explain the goals UFC strategies and, as Epstein puts it, show French officials they were dealing with “good people.” To that end, UFC officials explained that hosting MMA at the amateur level would lead to reasonable safety rules, properly certified instructors, and opportunities for athletes of all ages. Epstein also points out that UFC athletes, including those with ties to France, have played a pivotal role “in showing that this is a respected sport.”
The advocacy worked and the Ministry of Sports legalized MMA. The UFC is now collaborating with the French Boxing Federation and the French Mixed Martial Arts Federation to organically grow MMA.
Despite its relatively new status in France, the UFC estimates there are around 4 million fans there. This number partly reflects the opportunities for French citizens to watch the UFC on television. While French broadcasters were prohibited from showing MMA fights, UFC fights were broadcast in France by stations located outside the country.
“There’s a strong affinity,” says Epstein, for single-discipline martial arts — a term that includes MMA, judo, boxing and similar sports. French boxing officials, Epstein explained, “didn’t view this as a zero-sum game.” Evidence, he says, shows that when one martial arts discipline thrives, others attract fan interest.
This interest should grow now that the French Broadcasting Authority has authorized the broadcasting of MMA events in France. The National Gaming Authority of France, meanwhile, recently gave the green light to betting operators in France to offer betting on UFC fights.
International markets are an important part of UFC’s growth strategy. The fight series has invested tens of millions in China, for example, where it has a new performance institute and a partnership with the Chinese Olympic team. Brazil is another foreign market where martial arts, and MMA in particular, are extremely popular.
New markets like France are easier to break into with a local star, and the UFC already has that in France. Gane, 32, made his UFC debut in 2019 and has gone on to become one of the heavyweight division’s top stars. He lost a title fight to Francis Ngannou earlier this year but remains the top-ranked challenger in the division.
Epstein says the UFC hasn’t wasted an effort to bring the sport to any market. While it took time in France, much like it took years for New York to become the 50th state to legalize MMA, “in the end,” he says, “we succeeded.”
Epstein is confident that the UFC will become a truly global brand that values local markets.
“Our athletes, he notes, come from all over the world.” Epstein also points out that “we have never allowed others to own our productions.” When the UFC broadcasts in Brazil, a fan “sees the UFC” rather than an American television network, “on mic sticks and other properties.” The Brazilian fan also hears familiar TV announcers and analysts, rather than American announcers. Rather than attempting to import what might be considered an American sports league to overseas markets, the UFC is trying to blend into the country’s sports ecosystem.
The UFC’s strong cash flow has been a financial boon to parent company Endeavor (NYSE:EDR), which went public in April 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, amid sporting events, canceled concerts and film shoots. The UFC was one of the first major American sports to return to action in 2020. Epstein says the league has been ‘thoughtfully aggressive’ in resuming play, with strict protocols for athletes, staff and sub -third-party contractors that involved more than 12,000 COVID-19 tests and a positive rate “well below 1%”.
Endeavor was originally part of the group that bought the UFC in 2016 for $4 billion; last year he announced he was raising $1.75 billion to buy the 49.9% of the UFC he didn’t already own.