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‘It feels like a nightclub’: UFC COO Lawrence Epstein on how its fight nights became a knockout experience

Having staged 640 fight nights around the world, the UFC has established itself as an industry leader when it comes to live sporting spectacles. The MMA promotion’s COO Lawrence Epstein tells SportsPro how the company’s events have evolved, the challenges of recreating the Las Vegas experience overseas, and how it delivers an unforgettable occasion for fans.

27 March 2023 Josh Sim

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Lawrence Epstein is in no doubt about his favourite place to be during a Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fight night.

“That’s an easy one,” the MMA promotion’s chief operating officer tells SportsPro. “It’s sitting cageside watching the events. I am a fan, in addition to somebody who has the privilege of working at the UFC. Just being at the events, the energy that you feel, the connection that you feel to the sport, to the athletes, is really second to none for me.”

With 640 events under its belt, the UFC has grown to be an industry leader in producing show-stopping sports events that continue to sell out arenas around the world. Having firmly established itself as one of the hottest tickets in town in its home of Las Vegas, the company has since staged bouts in 26 other countries, underlining the global appeal the MMA promotion has garnered over its 30-year history.

The evolution of UFC’s live events

A lot has changed since the UFC staged its first fight night in front of a half-full McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. When asked how the organisation’s events have evolved during his own time at the company, Epstein is quick to credit the growth of MMA’s global following.

“The first thing to talk about is the fanbase,” he says. “We always had a really strong and loyal fanbase, even if it was relatively small. But now that fanbase has grown to just over 700 million UFC fans globally, and while the sport is very, very popular in the US and in North America, 90 per cent of our fans are from outside of North America. It’s something that has just transformed.

“Since when I got involved with this, this huge fanbase is [now] represented by more than 70 countries, and we have a social media following of around 230 million to 240 million. The UFC is broadcasted in 50 different languages too. So that’s been a big change, just at a macro level.”

Another aspect that stands out is the combat sport property’s live events production.

“We really pride ourselves on being a leader in that space,” Epstein continues. “We’re one of the few sports organisations that produces all of its own content. Every time you see something from the UFC, it doesn’t really matter where you see it, the production is being done by us. That’s significant and it’s a core competency of ours.

“It’s also part of our global strategy in the sense that we want our product to be seen as a global product, not warmed over US or North American content. That’s something that was very intentional from day one, but we certainly got a lot better at doing that over the years and really building a truly global television product.

“Everything that we’re trying to do, whether it’s a TV broadcast or consumer product, we all try to figure out how we take the DNA of the live event and infuse it into all of those things.”

Recent years have also seen women’s sports enjoy an uptick in interest, with organisations across the industry gradually starting to provide greater commercial opportunities for female athletes. Epstein is keen to highlight the UFC’s efforts to put female fighters front and centre of its events, including at the recent UFC 285 in Las Vegas, where Alexa Grasso’s victory over Valentina Shevchenko was the co-main event.

“We’re very proud to be the first and I believe the only sports organisation that has ever paid women exactly the same as men from day one,” he says. “For many years, Ronda Rousey was the highest-paid athlete in the UFC. So we’re very proud of featuring women on main and co-main events on a regular basis.

Ronda Rousey was one of the UFC’s iconic female fighters during her MMA career

“And it’s been a benefit to us, because though we had a solid female fanbase before there were women competing in the UFC, we saw a significant increase in our female fanbase once women began competing. So it’s been a great addition to the UFC. We’re far from fledgling, we’re developed, we’re continuing to develop and, of course, we’re always looking for more opportunities to create exposure for our female athletes.

“The women in the UFC compete as hard, if not harder than, the men. And generally, those fights are always as good, if not better than, the men’s fights.”

Focusing on fan experience

As well as creating the fights that people want to see in the octagon, the UFC has found a way to ensure that its live events always feel like a spectacle. Epstein is keenly aware that providing a high-quality experience for those is attendance is crucial to ensuring that the promotion continues to grow its fanbase.

“The live event is the key product for us,” he says. “It’s something that we’ve worked very hard on. We studied the products of many, many other sports. We really looked a lot at boxing in the early days, the things we liked and, more importantly, the things we didn’t like.

“One of the things that was very important to us are the spaces in between the fights, trying to keep the energy level up. So when you come to our events, you’re seeing great video content, you’re hearing great music with the appropriate support from an audio package that makes you feel like you’re in a nightclub or at a fun, exciting, energy-filled event like a rock concert.

“So we’ve been very intentional about how we’ve pushed the experience inside the arena, from lighting packages, the way our music works, to our content.”

The UFC prides itself on staging energy-filled events

While that supporting entertainment is important, the UFC still ensures the athletes are the focus. With numerous bouts taking place during a single fight night, Epstein emphasises the need to keep the action coming in order to keep spectators engaged.

“We move things relatively quickly,” he explains. “The younger consumer these days has got a shorter attention span, they need to be engaged as consistently as possible. We recognise that so we feel like our events have a great pace and energy to them.

“[UFC president] Dana [White] says it best, you’re not going to walk away from attending your first UFC event and say: ‘Oh, that sucked, I’m never going to go back to that again.’ It’s the exact opposite. You’re completely hooked after you have that first immersive experience with UFC live.”

Global expansion risks

While renowned for its events in Las Vegas, the UFC has travelled to overseas destinations as its international fanbase grows. Over the past year, the MMA promotion staged bouts in Australia, Brazil and the UAE, and recently put on its 14th event in London earlier this month.

“The platform that Las Vegas gives us to sell tickets to expose our fighters, our athletes, our brand is really second to none,” Epstein says. “But we can’t just do events in Vegas if we truly want to build a global sport and a global brand. That is and has absolutely been our ambition, and we continue to do everything we can to support that.

“What that means is that you’ve got to take the show on the road. The live event is the key product that informs everything else that we do, so exposing as many people as we possibly can to the product is really important. A lot of people travel to Vegas, which is another reason why it’s such an important city for us and the world of sport.

It’s really important if you want to build a global sport to take the product to local markets.

Lawrence Epstein, Chief Operating Officer, UFC

Having watched the UFC expand into just about every region around the world, Epstein points out that the company has taken risks to hold events overseas, explaining that it would have been safer financially to keep fight nights in American cities.

“Initially, in places like Brazil, [staging events] was something that cost us money,” he reveals. “We could have made more money, frankly, if we had done the event in the United States, in Vegas or New York or other places. But we decided the investment was worth it to build the brand in that particular market. It has been a great long-term investment for us.

“That’s the same thing with the UK or doing events in China or Australia. Taking that show to the local market is a really important catalyst to growing the fanbase. One of the things that we’ve always had here at the UFC is a long-term mindset. We’re trying to build a sport, we’re trying to build a brand, we’re trying to expose our athletes to as wide an audience as we possibly can. And part of that means taking the show on the road. Even if it costs us money to do it, in the long-term we’re going to be way better off.”

Staging live events in the face of a pandemic

While the current economic climate remains challenging, Epstein says the UFC has avoided any serious bumps in the road from a financial perspective. However, running its live events calendar in the face of a global pandemic was a unique problem for Epstein and his colleagues to take on.

“We had a variety of logistical challenges,” he says. “The most prominent being, how do you figure out how to do business during the Covid era? Frankly, as a company we saw it as a great opportunity and challenge to take on. We got shut down like everybody did around the world, and that first day that we were shut down, we mobilised everybody in the company.

“Dana challenged us and said: ‘I want to be the first sport to become active again.’ So we coined this mentality of being thoughtfully aggressive. We weren’t going to put anybody in harm’s way but there was a way to figure this thing out.”

As the history books show, the UFC’s efforts were ultimately successful, meaning it was able to reinforce its reputation in the live events space even in the face of a pandemic. They might not have looked exactly the same, with fans unable to attend, but from May 2020, its packed schedule of bouts continued without any events being called off.

“Our rate of positive Covid tests was well below one per cent,” Epstein continues. “That was the result of great procedures that we put in place, but just as important is that our athletes, our employees and third-party contractors, everybody adhering to those protocols in a very serious way that resulted in that low rate of positivity.

Frankly, we believe we set the standard for sports during that period of time.

Lawrence Epstein, Chief Operating Officer, UFC

How the UFC integrates its partners into live events

With its events watched by so many around the world, not to mention the huge numbers of fans that attend, it’s no surprise that UFC fight nights have become hot property for brands.

According to Epstein, the MMA promotion is keen to provide “authentic integration” into its events to help its partners bring new people into their ecosystem. Using the UFC’s longstanding sponsorship with energy drink brand Monster as an example, he emphasises the need for both the promotion and the partner to deliver for each other.

“When we enter a partnership with any product, there’s three things we look for,” he elaborates. “Number one, we want to partner with companies that are best in class. Monster is a great example as a leader in the energy space.

“Number two, we want to make some money. But number three, and the most important part of this, is that we want to activate their brand, and we want them to activate our brand. Monster is another great example of activating our brand at point of sale and convenience stores, grocery stores, other places where you can buy the product, integrating in UFC logos, information relating to events. It just gives us a lot of arms and legs when it comes to marketing our athletes, our brand and of course our individual events.

“We take a look at what we can do for them, there’s a ton of stuff that we’re doing integrating them into our digital ecosystems. Monster is at the centre of our canvas, so they’re prominently featured in the bouts themselves. They’re also prominently featured in any sort of media that spins out of those bouts, whether it’s social media, traditional media etc.

“We also do a variety of activations on premises where people can sample the product.”

Partners, such as Monster Energy, gain prominent branding on the canvas

30 years in the fight game

With the UFC celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Epstein reveals that the MMA promotion has already made extensive plans to commemorate the occasion.

“We’ve got a ton of things that we’re doing, both from an activation standpoint and visually too,” he says. “The first thing you’ll notice when you look at our events is the 30th anniversary logo on our UFC gloves. We’ve never done anything like that in the past. You’ll also see the logo on the athletes’ fight kit.

“In the events themselves, you’re gonna see a ton of broadcast integration. So for the 30th anniversary, we have a watermark, we’ve got a bunch of vignettes that talk about the great historical moments in the first 30 years of the UFC, and a variety of content pieces that are great. Digitally you’re gonna see stuff on social media on our website, lots of fan engagement opportunities, partner integrations, tons of things from every corner of the UFC ecosystem that will be celebrating this historic 30 years of UFC.”

In a short time, the UFC has garnered a reputation for delivering an experience that Epstein believes is “second to none” in sports. Having spent over 15 years working at the MMA promotion, attending many fight nights in the process, Epstein’s enthusiasm for the promotion’s events remains unwavering.

“I’m a huge sports fan, and I love it all,” he says. “But there’s something incredibly special about a UFC event, that energy. Sitting on the cage and watching these incredible athletes do their stuff, there’s nothing better than that.”

This feature forms part of SportsPro’s Live Events Week, a week of coverage exploring how promoters and host destinations are bringing events to life, as well as how venue operators and their suppliers are navigating newfound economic pressures. Click here to access more exclusive content and sign up to the SportsPro Daily newsletter here to receive daily insights direct to your inbox.

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