UFC’s announcement that it will host its first event in France on Sept. 3 at the Accor Arena in Paris follows a decade-long push to enter France, where MMA was illegal until two years ago. It also underscores the organization’s drive to become a global brand with local ties. The move will allow the approximately 4 million French fans to watch French broadcasts—instead of foreign imports—and celebrate French fighters, such as top heavyweight contender Ciryl Gane.
UFC’s entry into France was “complicated,” senior executive vice president and chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein told Sportico in a phone interview, before adding that his league was “determined” to make it happen.
The complexity reflected the structure of organized sports in France, where there is a cabinet-level minister of sports who has substantial authority over which sports are legal and how they’re managed. That arrangement contrasts with the U.S., where leagues are largely autonomous private ventures and states and municipalities regulate sports on health and safety grounds.
A major hurdle for UFC was a 2016 decree by Thierry Braillard, France’s then-minister of sports. The decree prohibited MMA on account of “human dignity” objections, including the use of fenced arenas, which were analogized to cages. For many years, MMA insiders viewed the ministry as closely tied to the Judo Federation, a potential economic rival to an MMA league.
France also uses what has been described as a “bottom-up” model to sports. Under it, a sport typically takes on professional features only after substantial development at the amateur level under the watchful eye of an amateur federation. UFC bouts therefore couldn’t be held in France when MMA itself was unstructured.
Epstein, a seasoned attorney who has been UFC’s point person on legal and legislative ventures, and other UFC officials visited France during the 2010s to present on MMA, explain UFC’s strategic goals and, as Epstein says, show French officials they were dealing with “good people.” To that end, UFC officials explained that organizing MMA at the amateur level would lead to sensible safety rules, properly certified instructors and opportunities for athletes of all ages. Epstein also emphasizes that UFC athletes, including those with ties to France, played pivotal roles “in showing that this is a respected sport.”
The advocacy worked and the ministry of sports legalized MMA. UFC is now collaborating with the French Boxing Federation and the French Mixed Martial Arts Federation to organically develop MMA.
Despite its relatively new status in France, UFC estimates there are about 4 million fans there. That number partly reflects opportunities for French citizens to watch UFC on TV. While French broadcasters were prohibited from showing MMA fights, UFC fights were broadcast into France by stations located outside the country.
“There’s a strong affinity,” Epstein says, for single discipline martial arts—a term that includes MMA, judo, boxing and similar sports. French boxing officials, Epstein explained, “didn’t view this as a zero-sum game.” Evidence, he says, shows that when one single discipline in martial arts thrives, other ones gain fan interest.
That interest should grow now that the French Broadcast Authority has permitted the broadcasting of MMA events in France. France’s National Gaming Authority, meanwhile, recently greenlighted betting operators in France to offer wagers on UFC bouts.
International markets are a major part of UFC’s growth strategy. The fighting series has invested tens of millions in China, for example, where it has a new performance institute and a partnership with the Chinese Olympics team. Brazil is another overseas market where martial arts, and MMA specifically, are extremely popular
New markets like France are easiest to crack with a homegrown star, and UFC already has that in France. Gane, 32, made his UFC debut in 2019 and has become one of the heavyweight division’s top stars. He lost a title fight against Francis Ngannou earlier this year but remains the division’s top-ranked challenger.
Epstein says UFC hasn’t lost an effort to bring the sport to any market. While it took time in France, just like it took years for New York to become the 50th state to legalize MMA, “ultimately,” he says, “we’ve succeeded.”
Epstein is confident UFC will become a truly global brand that values local markets.
“Our athletes,” he notes, “are from all over the world.” Epstein also stresses that “we have never allowed others to own our productions.” When UFC broadcasts in Brazil, a fan “sees the UFC” rather than an American TV network, “on mic sleeves and other properties.” The Brazilian fan also hears familiar TV announcers and analysts, rather than U.S. announcers. Rather than attempting to import what might be seen as an American sports league into foreign markets, UFC tries to blend into the country’s sports ecosystem.
UFC’s high cash flow has been a financial boon to parent company Endeavor (NYSE: EDR), which went public in April 2021, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, amid canceled sporting events, concerts and film shoots. UFC was one of the first major U.S. sports to resume operations in 2020. Epstein says the league was “thoughtfully aggressive” in resuming play, with strict protocols for athletes, staff and third-party contractors that involved more than 12,000 COVID-19 tests and a positive rate “well below 1%.”
Endeavor was originally part of the group that purchased UFC in 2016 for $4 billion dollars; last year it said it was raising $1.75 billion to buy the 49.9% of the UFC that it didn’t already own.