NHL's Dirty Little Secret Feeds Canada's UFC Frenzy

Dana White's Ultimate Fighter Championship finally breaks out in hockey-mad Canada with much-hyped UFC 129 promotional event in Toronto, Canada's biggest TV market, led by local hero and champ Georges St. Pierre on the main card.

TORONTO – After selling a record 55,000 tickets for UFC 129 at Rogers Centre in Toronto Saturday night, it’s easy to know why Dana White’s Ultimate Fighter Championship loves Canada when it comes to TV viewers and pay-per-view sales.

  In a word, hockey, where players already use their fists in fights.

  “Canadians are die-hard hockey fans. They’re already comfortable with full contact fighting,” UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, who fights out of San Diego, explained.

  It’s the National Hockey League’s dirty little secret: pro hockey embraces fighting, unlike the NBA, the NFL and Major League baseball, where referees quickly separate brawling players.

  So in Canada, where hockey is religion, fighting is already where Dana White wants to get the UFC internationally, into the sporting mainstream.

  “Canadians love their hockey. A lot about MMA (mixed martial arts) fighting is brand new to them, but it’s also well grounded with their culture,” added UFC light heavyweight Phil Davis, an all-American wrestler at Penn State University before entering the Octagon.

  Not that UFC had an easy ride getting into Toronto, Canada’s biggest and most lucrative TV market.

  Long banned in Ontario as prize fighting, provincial premier Dalton McGuinty only last year had a change of heart and made it legal for Dana White to hold events here.

  Now it’s about converting zealous fandom to dollars.

  “It’s a different type of Hollywood,” explains David U.K., CEO of Cue Digital Media, which markets UFC.com to Canadian sponsors and advertisers, along with other online properties like TMZ, Heavy, and Funny or Die that target a young Canadian male demo.

  The 55,000 fans that filled Rogers Centre Saturday night to see Canadian hero Georges St. Pierre, a.k.a. GSP, beat American challenger Jake Shields in the headline match represented the UFC’s biggest gate, netting an estimated $11 million in ticket receipts.

  Another 200,000 to 250,000 Canadians paid for a UFC 129 pay-per-view package, and around 2000 bars and restaurants countrywide paid a license fee so patrons could view the main card.

  Then there’s the UFC Tap Out shirts and Affliction gear, video games and action figures sold countrywide.

  “Canada has broken every record for the UFC,” Cue Media’s U.K. said.

  And even before the UFC pay-per-view main card got underway late Saturday night, website Heavy.com/MMA live streamed a 60-minute pre-fight UFC 129 show, Fight Day, in partnership with the UFC.

  Billed as UFC’s version of ESPN’s College Gameday show, hosts Dave Farra and Megan Olivi on location at Rogers Centre previewed UFC 129 to hook online viewers so they might pay for the main fight card.

  “It’s all driving to the pay-per-view buy,” explained Simon Assaad, CEO of Heavy, the online video producer and executive producer of Heavy.com’s slick UFC 129 online countdown show.

  And it’s not just selling the sport, as much as full Internet experience for MMA fans via a Ustream embedded player.

  Fight Day features the latest MMA news, interviews and behind-the-scenes looks with UFC fighters, pulling online viewers into the mix via fan polls and other Twitter and Facebook contributions.

  Then, after Fight Day wrapped, UFC 129’s first preliminary fights streamed on Facebook, yet another online contribution to the UFC eco-system.

  And that was followed at 8 p.m. Saturday night by an hour of additional UFC 129 preliminary action on Spike TV stateside and Rogers Sportsnet in Canada, yet another plank in the UFC’s freemium strategy to drive up pay-per-view revenues.

  More than turning hockey-mad Canadians into MMA fans with a multiplatform hype machine, the UFC has also discovered what the major studios, Netflix and a host of other U.S. entertainment brands already know: Canada is a major market in surprisingly good economic health, and so has consumers willing to pay as much as $800 for a ticket to UFC 129 on Saturday night.

  “That rivals the NHL,” says Cue Digital’s David U.K., who this Monday will return to beating down the doors of Canadian broadcasters, advertisers and sponsors to get them on board with the UFC freight train rolling countrywide.