UFC 99 invades Germany: Blitzkrieg?

As The Ultimate Fighting Championship prepares to land in Germany for the first time on June 13 with UFC 99, the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization has braced itself for a less-than-smooth landing.

Last month, a front-page article about UFC 99 in one of Germany’s largest newspapers has spurred a series of negative reactions.

Child protection services in Cologne, the host city of UFC 99, for example, requested a ban on minor’s attendance at the card; UFC’s local promoter agreed to the demand.

According to other news source, Cologne’s city council has tried to ban the event in the past months, claiming it was too violent.  Negative publicity was exacerbated by an article from another major German newspaper that contained erroneous information that everything is legal in UFC fights except biting and eye gouging.

Adding fuel to fire, a well-known German boxing announcer joined the chorus, pontificating that the UFC is “trying to sell brutality as something impressive.”

By most accounts, the uproar of negative publicity seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived violence of MMA:  It hints at the same old issue that has saddled the UFC since the “dark age” of MMA here in the US.

Regarding the situation, UFC President, Dana White stated, “It’s the same thing we’ve battled everywhere.  It was even worse when we started in UK.  Television, politicians, venues, they were all against us.  They tear it down.  It takes time.”

The setback in Germany thus should not come as a surprise.  It is yet another reminder of mixed martial arts’ ongoing struggle for acceptance as a legitimate sport through the education of the general public and key decision makers.

In the US, even with the explosion in popularity that has catapulted MMA to near mainstream status, some in general public, as well as in media, still cling to the outdated image of savagery for the early days of the UFC.  MMA also has yet to achieve legality in several states/provinces in the US and Canada.

Dana White and Co. acknowledge that the current spate of condemnation leveled against MMA in Germany simply comes with the territory.

White added, “It’s still there, but it’s nothing new.  This is what we do.  I remember when we went to the U.K. Lorenzo and I were literally in a hotel room, dealing with stuff right up until we went to the event.  It’s all part of the process.”

Judging from White’s statements, UFC is unscathed from the seemingly endless battle against MMA’s stigma of bloodsport and eager to march forward in the face of adversity.

On the other hand, the controversy is also symptomatic of MMA’s lack of foothold in Germany.

While Germany is Europe’s richest economy, its MMA scene is still in infancy.  Given the current MMA vacuum, UFC has a tough work load ahead in establishing itself in the German market.

The general lack of recognition of MMA, partially due to the absence of media coverage of the sports, leaves Germany a fallow ground for a major MMA event.

Eurosport, a European sports satellite and cable network, has broadcast PRIDE FC and several European MMA events and a company called “Martial Arts X-treme” had a short-lived foray on German TV with a MMA-themed program; where MMA received exposure on German media, the coverage has been spotty at best.

Recent years have seen the emergence of various promotions, such as the Outsider Cup, Shido, and Gorilla Fight Events.

These, however, seem to be the exclusive enclaves of a small number of enthusiasts.  While one or two significant MMA-related websites in Germany cover these promotions and their fighters, their presence remains in the shadow of major media coverage.

MMA in Germany is therefore undergoing the same stage of development where the sport found itself in the US during the late ’90s.  There are hard-working fighters ready to make names for themselves and a small group of fans and supporters.  Yet MMA struggles to break out of obscurity and gain legitimacy as a sport.

The future of MMA in Germany shows signs of promise.  Boxing (and its curious offshoot, chess boxing) enjoys immense popularity and Germany has produced outstanding athletes in amateur wrestling and other combat sports.

Thus, the tradition and receptivity toward combat sports exist to form a favorable foundation for MMA to thrive.

The challenge lies in achieving wider acceptance and providing better opportunities for competition to aspiring fighters:  Herein exists the opportunity for UFC to facilitate the growth of MMA in Germany and, in the process, corner the market.  Having secured a deal with a TV network in Germany, UFC has taken the first step.

In UK, UFC’s vigorous marketing campaign and effective partnership with sports network have paid dividends.

Having learned how to promote well in the UK market, UFC’s UK events have fared well.  Aided by the eagerness of tabloid press and several TV channels to cover both UFC and local MMA events, UFC has spurred the growth of and become an integral part of the UK MMA scene.

Securing promotional outlets is a good first step for UFC in Germany.  German market will present its set of challenges — for example, Germany currently does not have a notable star whom the UFC can promote, as it did with Michael Bisping in UK.

Several fighters have been making their names in the domestic promotions and Germany has produced K-1 standouts with stint in PRIDE FC, Chalid Arrab and Stefan Leko, and current UFC fighter, Denis Siver.  None, however, has demonstrated much marketability for the UFC.

Promoting the growth of both the sports of MMA and UFC’s brand name will require sustainable and well-calibrated strategies.

With regard to strategies, UFC 99 will serve as a vehicle for assessing the challenges that lie ahead in German market.  UFC 99 will elucidate the magnitude of the challenges stemming from the intransigence of the German bureaucracy and boxing promoters.  A careful examination and deliberation on the event will also give Dana White and Co. clues about how receptive German market is to mixed martial arts and the UFC .

The choice of Lanxess arena may turn out to be conducive for testing the market.  Cologne’s geographical proximity to France and Netherland and well-connectedness to many native, as well as international cities, and the success Lanxess has enjoyed in drawing a sizable crowd for WWE events make the arena a strategically sound location for the event.  If UFC 99 succeeds in drawing a substantial number of fans from outside Germany, the event turnout can shed insights about the size and scope of MMA fanbase and other vital information about other European markets.

Finally, the aftermath of the event may spark further controversy regarding the merit of MMA in German media.

Again, UFC must continue its diligent, ceaseless effort to campaign for the legitimacy of the sports if it decides to continue its expansion in Germany and beyond.

At the same time, even a negative publicity may be a blessing in disguise, as it brings MMA and UFC to mainstream consciousness in Germany and neighboring countries.

The MMA’s newfound spotlight will present an opportunity to rally the small but enthusiastic circle of fans in Germany and elsewhere in Europe behind the sports — this alone, will be a huge step forward for MMA and UFC in the international arena.

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