In a move that may break television’s sleeper hold on sports events, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will exclusively live-stream an anticipated fight on Facebook, available to anyone who “likes” their fan page. This is the first time a major sporting event has offered exclusive content through the social networking king, and, if successful, could make Facebook center stage for the Super Bowls and World Cups of the future.
Experimenting with new web integration is a natural fit for the UFC, a business built on the strapping backs of its early, Internet-savvy fans. When CEO Dana White first took over the beleaguered brand, “none of the traditional media ever covered the UFC,” White tells Fast Company. “One of the things that helped keep us alive was the Internet. We were really into social media before social media was even cool.”
Today, White's million-strong Twitter following and cadre of fighters trained in social media ninjitsu overtake global trending topics for most major bouts. As Internet users increasingly turn to their Facebook friends to filter out the barrage of advertisement noise, personal recommendations can mean millions of new eyeballs. “One of the great things about Facebook is that it reaches 600 million people,” Dana gushes. “But even better than that, all these people can talk to each other and let their friends know the fight is on.”
UFC’s explosive popularity has super-saturated television’s capacity to satisfy demand. During a live event, “there’s actually fights that won’t air that people are dying to see,” White says. Facebook streams that otherwise unnoticed extra content, which is wildly popular, if not quite popular enough for regular TV programming. And hardcore fans watching the action pump up online buzz.
A previous test-run on Facebook for a small event gave the UFC confidence to make a larger commitment to the online streaming model. A charity fight live-streamed for troops stationed abroad raked in 123,000 new Facebook fans, according to their social media lead, Amy Martin of Digital Royalty. Martin, who works with a broad sports portfolio of social media successes, from Shaq to the LA Kings, tells Fast Company that so-called "like-gating" is "absolutely" the future of live sporting events. "We don’t have a network today that reaches the same global audience that Facebook does ... We’re taking the content to where fans want to be and where they’re spending their day."
For now, the UFC still cannot justify completely replacing its television cash cow for Facebook: Saturday's live-stream preliminary fight ends when a Spike TV broadcast picks up, which then climaxes in the main Pay-Per-View show. However, the experiment paves the way for sports enterprises to whole-sale abandon network TV as soon as Facebook untangles the advertising logistics with this new medium.
Until then, gather your friends, grab some beers, and go to Facebook--the fight’s about to start.