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Zuffa CEO Lorenzo Fertitta Sees India as an ‘Opportunity and a Challenge'

Michael Cohen, Getty Images
Michael Cohen, Getty Images
Getty Images

The announcement of The Ultimate Fighter: India, the UFC's latest international TUF venture, came and went without much fanfare. India is a country largely devoid of mixed martial arts -- save for the Super Fight League -- and there are doubts about the UFC's viability in such a barren market. Zuffa CEO Lorenzo Ferititta understands these concerns, however he also understands the unique opportunity that comes with tackling one of largest untapped regions in the world.

India is the world's second-most populous country, supporting over 1.2 billion residents, and logic dictates that at least a small percentage of those 1.2 billion people have to be fight fans, even if they don't know it yet.

"That's a market that we think has a lot of potential, but we are literally starting from ground zero," Fertitta said at a recent media luncheon. "People really don't know anything about this sport or UFC. But the thing that's interesting about it is, we look at it kind of similar to Brazil. We look at, they're obviously both part of the BRIC nations, strong economies, a lot of natural resources, and up-and-coming young educated class of people that are starting to emerge.

"When you look at the trends of what's going on, and what I'll call kind of ‘youth culture,' and the way they're consuming entertainment, that younger generation is kind of moving away from traditional Bollywood and they're consuming more of western Hollywood type product."

Fertitta believes this changing of the cultural tide is exactly the opening the UFC has been waiting for. A new generation, groomed on modern technology and connected to entertainment halfway across the world, has grown tired of their timeworn distractions, he says. They are craving a new and exciting outlet to channel their attention into, and he is confident MMA can deliver.

"Everything over there from a sports standpoint is cricket, cricket, cricket, cricket," Fertitta explained. "So what they did was they created a short-form of cricket, which is the IPL, and it's so successful, primarily for the younger generation, because they don't want to spend five days watching a cricket match. Now with short-form cricket, they can watch a match for three hours, and it's like watching an NFL game or something like that. You can consume that.

"They want alternative sports. High-paced, fast, action, all of those things. Well, UFC pretty much fits that bill, and there's nothing else really out there that we think does."

While mixed martial arts may be a new entity in the country, there is one cultural touchstone that bolsters Fertitta's faith in TUF: India. Kushti, one of India's secondary national sports, is a pastime relatively akin to freestyle wrestling. Matches take place inside a clay or dirt pit, and according to Fertitta, thousands of people gather around villages to watch the action. Appreciation of the ground game has always been one of the biggest stumbling blocks for drawing new fans to the UFC. However, with a grappling base already culturally present, Fertitta believes it will be easier for potential customers to grasp what they see in the Octagon.

And while embarking into a completely foreign land would be considered a hindrance for most other sports, because of its history of being cast in a negative light, the cultural newness of mixed martial arts may prove to be an unforeseen boon.

"That's both an opportunity and a challenge at the same time," admitted Fertitta. "We did the press conference there (on Wednesday) and it was kind of strange. It was almost like they knew so little about the UFC, they didn't even know what questions to ask.

"The WWE is very popular there, and I think when the consumer first sees it, they're going to think it's WWE. I think a lot of people over there think the WWE's actually real, believe it or not, just because they haven't seen what is real. And when they see the UFC, they're going to be like, ‘Wow, that's real and the WWE is not real.'"

In order to build a palpable buzz, a UFC media blitz is already in the works. According to Fertitta, TUF: India advertising will be cross promoted on India's two biggest programs, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Indian Idol.

In addition, Fertitta plans to fashion the show in a manner similar to TUF: Brazil, meaning only fighters of Indian descent will be cast, though residency in India is not mandatory. However, he is well aware this isn't going to be a market where the UFC can just take one pay-per-view there a year and expect their popularity to flourish.

"In order to really build a sustainable, long-term business, you have to have product in the market," Fertitta explained.

"We've got to bring the product there, but then we've also got to get past the fact that we kind of have this hit-and-run strategy. We'll (bring an event there) and we'll kill it, but then we're not back until when? I don't even know, we don't even have anything scheduled. So how do we build a sustainable program with fight series in primetime in relevant cities that make sense on an ongoing basis? So, for instance, working on the gameplan for next year in Brazil, outside of just the pay-per-views, we're probably going to do five or six fights there. Some kind of Ultimate Fight Night things, and that's how we built a sustainable program here in the U.S."

It'll be a slow process, though both Fertitta and UFC President Dana White hope to start seeing fighters emerge from India within the next five to seven years.

Of course, the first step is the reality show. UFC officials plan to start filming sometime in the summertime of 2013, and then air in September on India's SONY SIX, the same network that broadcasts IPL matches, which sometimes draw upwards of 100 to 150 million viewers. The first live UFC event to be held in India will be the TUF season finale, though, with a Zuffa roster devoid of any Indian talent, the coaching situation is still undetermined.

Regardless, the journey into India will be a fascinating experiment for the UFC. And of course, fight fans back home in the states will be more than welcome to follow along.

"At the end of the day, with the way media is consumed through technology, for the crazy hardcore fans that want to watch any fighters on The Ultimate Fighter, we figure out a way to make it available," assured Fertitta. "I mean, are you going to see it on FX? No. But, if you want to consume it, we'll put it out there."