UFC

UFC blazing a social media trail

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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During the past few weeks, it seems there have been more headlines about Olympic athletes’ activity on Twitter than news of what they’re actually achieving at the games.

Whether it was Hope Solo attacking Brandi Chastain in consecutive 140-character missives, Lolo Jones making an inappropriate joke about Americans and guns, two athletes kicked out of the Olympics for making racist tweets or Kevin Love snapping photos of his sleeping Team USA teammates on a plane, the @ symbol and that little blue bird have become as much of a storyline in the 2012 London Olympics as golds, silvers and bronzes.

As Olympic committees struggle to corral, compute and comprehend the ever-twisting world of Twitter, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is, at last, flying smoothly with the blue bird.

There has been no shortage of growing pains and lessons along the way, but the UFC and its fighters are truly on the front line when it comes to maximization of Twitter.

“Social media has been huge for us,” UFC president Dana White said this week from his Las Vegas office. “Twitter is the greatest marketing tool in the history of the world, and it is free. You can talk directly to your fans instantly. There's no filter or delay; it is all real time. It’s incredible.”

Just how bullish about Twitter is White? Last November the UFC announced it would award 12 bonuses per fiscal quarter, rewarding what it described as “creative and successful uses of Twitter” to its cadre of competitors. It was the first Twitter-related financial incentive of its kind. Fighters were placed into four categories based on the number of their Twitter followers, and three prizes have been given out in each category the past two quarters — for the most total followers, the biggest percentage increase in followers over the quarter and “the most creative use of Twitter.”

A professional sports organization encouraging “creative use of Twitter”? Imagine that.

Leading brand managers and social media experts consider White to be an “early adopter,” the holy grail of labels for a 21st century CEO. “Unlike other sports leagues or organizations, the UFC actually embraces and incentivizes their fighters to engage with their fans and followers via Facebook and Twitter, rather than penalize or put rules and regulations on social media use,” said Jerry Meng, chief brand strategist at S Plus, LLC, Digital Media. “Their audience is worldwide, and the best way of engaging — in terms of time, cost, effectiveness, measurability — is broadcasting to their social media platform and letting their fans spread the word. It’s real, it's organic, and it works. Look at their social media metrics. The numbers don't lie.”

Those metrics, which the UFC has shared, can be summed up with the following:

• White is the most-followed sports president or commissioner, with more than 2.1 million Twitter followers (NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has just 280,000);

• Anderson Silva is the most-followed fighter in the world, with more than 2 million Twitter followers;

• The UFC YouTube channel has more than 333 million channel views, and the average video views are more than the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA combined.

There’s no better place to watch UFC action than at the octagon, but watching on the couch with a few buddies isn’t a bad alternative. White recognized this early and saw Twitter as a quick, cost-efficient way to maximize the view-at-home product of his sport.

On any given fight night, 60-plus UFC-related topics will be trending. During a recent Saturday evening pay-per-view title bout between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen, seven of the 10 “trending topics” on Twitter were UFC-related. According to the social media measurement firm Simply Measured, there were at one point during the fight, 4,445 tweets per minute. Among notable celebrities involved in the UFC 148 Twitter conversation were LeBron James, Minka Kelly, Channing Tatum and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Following the sport has become as much about engaging in Twitter conversation as about watching the fighters’ moves.

For fans, it’s a no-lose scenario. “I don’t think any other sport has been impacted nearly as much as the fighting sports — MMA and boxing — by Twitter,” said Mark Ortega, a boxing writer for Queensberry-Rules.com. “When watching a fight live, Twitter’s an essential complement to the experience. I often find myself scrolling my timeline and seeing what other points or insights the people I respect most in the industry are making during a bout. Having that access — in real time — is tremendous for the average fan viewing at home.”

For White, it’s a way to keep his finger on the pulse of the fans’ conversations. Yes, celebrities like James and Kelly talking about UFC 148 helps promote and sell the sport. But using Twitter to monitor the ongoing chatter during a fight gives White rare access to the guys on the couch as well.

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“Having access to the ongoing conversations that our 2 million-plus fans are having is invaluable,” said White. “If the pay-per-view has gone down in Iowa and someone who has paid to see the fights can’t, or if there were problems with something else during fight night, I know about it immediately and have people to fix it. In the old days, I wouldn’t know about bad stuff like that until Monday morning.”

If it were just White who embraced Twitter, UFC wouldn’t be viewed as a social media force. “Dana gets it, obviously,” said Chris Erb, vice president of Brand Marketing for EA Sports. “But so do his fighters. They're as active and as engaging as any athletes in any sport. The guys show their true personalities through their various social media platforms. Fans want — and really deserve — that. And that’s a testament to Dana. He encourages them to be that way."

This weekend’s UFC on FOX fight card pits fan favorite and Boston native Joe Lauzon against former WEC 155 lightweight champion Jamie Varner. Lauzon, a computer science major when he was at Wentworth Institute of Technology, has been described by many as the Mark Zuckerberg of the UFC. He laughs at the label, a nickname that has picked up steam since “The Social Network” hit theaters in 2010. “Zuckerberg screwed over everyone, right?” Lauzon said with a chuckle. “That part isn’t so flattering, now is it?”

Lauzon said he’ll not only tweet in the days leading up to a bout, but on fight night as well. Sometimes, he said, it’s just too irresistible to not get involved in the Twitter conversation: “If you’re a UFC fighter and you were at a party and everyone at that party was talking about a UFC fight, you’d most likely want to offer your opinion. Well, Twitter’s really just one big party. Everyone’s hanging out, weighing in. It’s a place where I can voice my opinion and really connect with knowledgeable fans.”

It’s also a place to show his personality outside of the octagon. “If you think of a UFC fighter, you might think of a stereotypical ‘meathead type',” Lauzon said. “But that’s not us. I mean, I’m a huge gamer. Other guys paint. Some are into “Star Trek.” You wouldn’t know that from just watching us fight. But through Twitter, we get to connect with fans and show our true selves.”

Lauzon pointed to White as one of the reasons his social media profile has expanded tenfold over the past 2 1/2 years: “I’ve got 130,000 followers now. That’s a lot, and I’m not even close to being one of the fighters with the most followers. Dana encouraged all of us to get active on Twitter long before it became what it is today, and that’s really paid off for all of us.”

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But social media also have created several problems for UFC. With completely free speech, no formal editorial board and no teams of PR handlers and brand managers monitoring their words, there can be missteps and misfortune. That was the case in 2011 when fighters Forrest Griffin and Miguel Torres both made crude jokes about rape. Torres was released from the UFC but reinstated after a series of apologies.

Even White's own Twitter feed has raised eyebrows. Truly “from him, by him,” his stream-of-conscious posts throughout UFC events have taken swipes at fighters, officials, athletic commissions and even fans. But it's White, unfiltered and real. The fans — and even the fighters — respect the authenticity.

To smooth out some of those bumps, White and the UFC’s communications staff have made efforts to provide more Twitter education and training.

At the UFC annual summit meeting, held in Las Vegas in July, Twitter played a starring role. “We’re told all sorts of things at the meeting,” Lauzon said. “You know, ‘Don’t screw around with steroids.’ ‘Be sure to put your money away for taxes.’ That kind of stuff. This year we spent a good portion of it on maximizing our Twitter and Facebook activity. We’ve got to be responsible, and the UFC gets that. For them to spend some of their money on Twitter incentives for us instead of spending it on a big national advertisement or commercial, that shows us how much it matters to the organization.”

Added Lauzon: “The problem was that most of the fighters were like, ‘I don’t want to learn that stupid Twitter thing’. But now, it’s really clicking. The incentives were put in place to really get everyone hooked on it. Now that most the guys are hooked on it, Twitter, itself, keeps them hooked.”

There clearly has been some turbulence, but Twitter and the UFC seem to now be in a very good place — one that’s benefiting both the organization and its millions of fans.

Perhaps by the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, the IOC and USOC will come along for the ride, too.

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