Many people pointed to Cain Velásquez’s heavyweight title victory last October as a milestone moment for Latinos and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
But for the UFC and its Hispanic marketing initiatives, the defining moment came a week earlier.
To kick off “Fight Week” for UFC 121 in Anaheim, organizers thought it might be neat to hold a little rally at Los Angeles’ historic Olvera Street. A number of Latino boxers had held similar events at the historic downtown plaza.
The UFC did some promotion a few days in advance, primarily through social media. Olvera Street staff told UFC personnel they would probably be set with a couple of security guards.
When Velásquez arrived, the place was mobbed.
“I had the person who runs the venue at Olvera Street come up to me and say, ‘We have done this for 10 years, we have done this with the biggest names in boxing, and this event dwarfs it,” UFC director of Hispanic affairs Brandon Clark recalled. “You can clearly see [the UFC] has resonated within the market. You get out and you can feel.
"It’s there," he added. "Latinos are very well-represented.”
The appeal to the Hispanic demographic is the culmination of aggressive efforts by the UFC, which seeks to both represent and grow the sport of mixed martial arts.
This marketing strategy is why the UFC is able to continue drawing Latino fans, even when the headliner isn’t Latino, as will be the case this Saturday as Georges St. Pierre and Jake Shields square off in UFC 129 in Toronto.
“Of course, it’s any marketer’s dream to have that instant connection, and that’s what a Cain Velásquez does,” Clark said of attracting a Hispanic fanbase. “When Cain won the UFC championship in October, a lot of people watched the UFC for the very first time. But one thing that we know is, ever since Cain won, we’ve seen a lot of people that only came in for the first time, liked it and have returned even though Cain hasn’t been on the card.”
Getting people introduced to the relatively new sport has been one of the biggest challenges.
“Ultimately, it comes down to education and awareness and helping legitimize the brand and the sport,” Clark said. “As much as the UFC has grown in the general market, there’s still an educational component to it. We see that [issue of explaining the sport] as even more important within the Hispanic market.”
Just like most successful businesses in America, the UFC understands the value in the Hispanic market. Its executives also recognize the influence and importance of Latino fans in boxing, another combat sport.
However, mixed martial arts used to lag in attracting this key audience. So two years ago, the UFC revamped its approach and made a major push toward attracting a Hispanic audience. In 2008, the company had one staffer dedicated to all things Hispanic marketing.
Now, there are six.
Last July, the UFC launched a Spanish-language pay-per-view television production option, breaking away from simply going the traditional SAP route for those seeking Spanish-language programming. This endeavor encompasses everything from the graphics to the on-camera talent.
On-demand Spanish-language content is available both online and through major cable providers. A media partnership with Univision also has helped the UFC reach Spanish-language viewers.
The company’s digital presence is equally aggressive. Like many other sports organizations, the UFC has a Spanish-language site in UFCespanol.com. This week, UFC also unveiled UFCLatino.com, a site that seeks to engage the bilingual, bicultural U.S. Latino.
The work has paid off. According to Simmons research, Hispanics now make up 20 percent of the sport’s key male 18-34 demographic. By those same numbers, almost 40 percent of Hispanic males 18-34 identify as avid UFC fans, while less than a quarter of non-Latinos in that audience do.
Hispanics also are more likely to purchase pay-per-view fights, which is at the core of the UFC business model.
For a company that only began to target the Hispanic market over the last few years, those numbers indicate success – even if the UFC is a little more reserved.
“The term I would use in terms of our growth and the company is ‘very satisfied’ as far as the investment they’ve put in the last year and a half,” Clark said. “It’s been extremely encouraging.”
With all evidence (including the 2010 Census) pointing to a growing and increasingly influential U.S. Latino demographic, the UFC is also extremely well positioned for continued success amongst Hispanic fans in the future.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz