I'll start this article with a confession: I have higher hopes for mixed martial arts in Latin America than I do East Asia, at least as far as the next 10 years is concerned.
Ultimately, it's all conjecture, but Latin America does seem poised for growth, if not imminent than eventual. Large swathes of the region have experienced middle class growth, thus raising the purchasing power of the average consumer and raising the limits on what's possible for the entrepreneur. Key portions of the region from Central to South America have at least some history with boxing, with places like Mexico being home to many of that sport's best both historically and currently. While linguistically and culturally unique, UFC already has a major foothold in South America's largest country and economy in Brazil.
Perhaps most importantly, however, UFC has managed to lock up key television deals in virtually all key markets ahead of any attempts at expansion. While the UFC has strong distribution in South Korea, Japan remains a re-work in progress while China, with a splintered television landscape between competing satellite providers and state-run companies, is off to a very quiet start.
Latin America, by contrast, may just be on the tip of a boom.
Jamie Pollack, the UFC Senior Vice President of International Development and General Manager of Latin America, is based in Las Vegas, but is the man at the forefront of the UFC's push in Spanish-speaking Latin America. He heads all international efforts there, essentially overseeing the territory and is responsibly for helping launch the UFC brand in Brazil. For the last three years, he's traveled there extensively, establishing the distribution, media, licensing and other key deals essential to bring the full force of the market to bear.
Now he's turning his attention to the rest of the continent and larger region.
As the UFC has prioritized international expansion, the key question is why pushing into Latin America has now become one of the focal points.
"It's just timing," Pollack tells MMA Fighting. "There's a bunch of things that have to have to lay the groundwork to be able to successfully launch any endeavor that we do, if it's The Ultimate Fighter or if it's putting live events on television or launching the network or merchandising or licensing programs. There's a lot of leg work that we do to set it up, but I think the timing of it now is that we have UFC Network that's fully launched in the region and that's a business that we're growing, we're excited about. There's really nothing like that offering in the world, to get all the UFC content and it's between eight to ten dollars per month on a monthly subscription.
"And we've now established really momentum, not just Mexico, but most of the key countries in the region. That means we have very good relationships now with open air, free to air broadcasters. Part of the business is being able to have that open free television like we do here with big FOX, but then also having the availability of being able to run all of the programming, all of the fights in one central location. It really gives us the ability to start to launch other products and TUF is obviously a fit."
Pollack says through it's various Televisa networks, the UFC will be available in 64 million households in the region (again, excluding Brazil). It's that sort of ubiquity that Pollack argues is create awareness, education and that interest.
It's hard to overstate just how greased the wheels are for UFC in Latin America relative to other regions, countries or continents given the two-pronged approach they're using on television.
The open air network offerings vary depending on the market, but essentially serve as the larger brand exposer while the UFC Network services the more dedicated fan base in a way that North American Fight Pass users can only dream of. Pollack explains the approach.
"All of the live events that we're producing are on [UFC Network], and it's all in Spanish language," he said. "We have localized versions of compilations shows that air on there, 'Best Of's', all of the programming that we control and also eventually we'll start to include some of the other library content that we have from PRIDE and Strikeforce and WEC. That's a just a huge, general MMA offering with UFC leading it.
"On the open air networks currently," he continued, "what we do is, we have a one hour a week compilation highlight show on these open air networks every week. Then we also show four live events that get simulcast on the open air network and on UFC Network. That's been happening throughout the region over the last year or so. That's really the basis our out TV distribution."
These programs, along with occasional media tours with various Spanish-speaking fighters, have served as the precursor to the UFC's more robust involvement in the region, which brings us to 'The Ultimate Fighter: Latinoamerica'. The show, the first designed exclusively for this region, pits a team of Mexican fighters lead by UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and a team comprised of fighters from various South American countries headed by top contender Fabricio Werdum.
The show consists of two weight classes, bantamweight and featherweight, and the finalists in both weight classes along with Velasquez and Werdum will battle in the UFC's first-ever show in Mexico in November.
For Pollack, the key to the show's purpose is to be a talent scouter and driver of brand awareness. The natural rivalry among Latin American countries, Pollack surmises, will help push the show's reality show edge.
"It's healthy competition and you don't get more competitive in any other sport than you do in UFC where you've got your training team, but at the end of the day it's one-on-one in the Octagon," Pollack argued. "What's unique about The Ultimate Fighter for Latin America is, it is a huge region, but Spanish is spoken in all of these countries and so the opportunity to be able to have fighters from Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Bolivia, Argentina mix and all living in a house together and everybody is proud of where they're from, it is really going to set up to have an interesting show."
Spanish, Pollack contends, and it's vast spread over neighboring territories, is a unifying force, which cannot be replicated elsewhere and what can set this version of The Ultimate Fighter apart from others.
"Quite frankly," he said, "if you look at the rest of the world just based on languages, it would be hard to do something like this in, say, Europe or Asia because the countries are so close together, but they have their own unique languages. This is what I think makes this so special."
Pollack is bullish on the eventual level of talent that the show and various countries could produce, if for no other reason than the size of populations in Latin American countries. Most observers, including talent scouts, have told MMA Fighting that's certainly possible, but could take years to produce something as recognizable as what the UFC typically offers today.
Still, there's a starting point, and that's the training center in Las Vegas, which is where this show is being filmed. Pollack claims Sin City was a natural choice given all the advantages it confers for those making the show as well as the 'plot' of the show itself.
"It is neutral, if you think about it," he added. "It'd be hard to pick where else to go since it's really a mix of these countries. For us, it made sense to keep it in Las Vegas, at least for the first season. Things can change for subsequent seasons, but for now, we wanted to make sure that we deliver the show at the highest quality knowing that we've done it before here."
Perhaps the most important question is what the value of the show is beyond Mexico. That country has been groomed for longer and is more capable of conversion. Velasquez leads that charge, more fighters are ready, there's something of an indigenous scene taking place and is close in proximity to the U.S. Will the returns in the various other Latin American markets in terms of response to this show dictate where the UFC holds future live events?
"It's hard to say," Pollack confessed. "I think The Ultimate Fighter is really one of many different ways for the brand to be able to get out there and touch people in different ways.
"It's a reality television show, so in some markets that might have greater resonance regardless of if it has to do with the UFC or not. Some markets are more sports-oriented cultures than others. Obviously soccer is always underlying in all these countries, but when you step away from soccer, a lot of these countries are different and they have different values. They look at things differently. They accept and don't accept things on their own terms. Time will tell, but for us, the ability on a pan-regional stage to put this show on is a great opportunity and I think it's going to be something that will continue and the fan base will want more of."
The show is set to debut in August and in addition to being available everywhere where Spanish is spoken in the Western hemisphere, will also air on Fight Pass.
Without getting ahead of ourselves, though, one wonders about the contours of the future. Pollack has a point when describing what makes the region unique. There is a unifying language and strong television deals in burgeoning economic markets. TUF: Latinoamerca is the first TUF in the region, but looking forward, may also just be the first.
"The possibilities are endless. It really is," Pollack adamantly states. "This format works. It's been proven. It's been on air since 2005. It's the longest-running sports reality television series in the world, ever.
"There's a reason why that's happening. Pan-regionally, if it works and continues, it will be great. If we want to do more seasons in individual countries and we're able to do that, it's always a possibility."