Even with the best seat in the building, UFC president Dana White spends more time staring at his phone than the fights in front of him.
At these main events, he’s simply more interested in a ringside view into the world of social media.
With the fights in full swing, White closely monitors the Internet traffic on his BlackBerry, keeping tabs on what fans are discussing through Twitter or Facebook and handling potential problems before they fester.
If the cable goes out in Iowa during a pay-per-view event, White will become aware of it through Facebook and call a contact to investigate.
Should a problem arise with tickets, he will know through Twitter and instantly address it.
White and the UFC have embraced all aspects of social media to broaden the appeal of mixed martial arts. The connection is a natural fit because the organization relied heavily on the Web to promote itself nearly a decade ago, when hardly any of the mainstream media gave the events much coverage.
And monitoring reaction in real time is a boon for White’s business since it helps him instantly deal with any gripes.
Before each big event, White assembles what he calls “The Lab” in a back room. It’s a bank of computers set up to track everything that’s being uttered about the UFC on social media.
“I’m not the guy to go out and tell these other leagues what to do; the NFL and NBA have been very successful without my advice,” said White, who’s in Vancouver, British Columbia, this weekend for UFC 131. “But the reality is this: The younger generation, they’re on Twitter, they’re on Facebook, they’re on the Internet. The world is changing and it’s changing fast.”
UFC now boasts more than 5.6 million Facebook friends, second only to the NBA (9.4 million) among America’s big sports. The organization also has more Facebook popularity than the league home pages for NFL, MLB and NHL combined (5.5 million).
On Twitter, UFC’s following has swelled to more than a quarter million. And White, who’s never been bashful about bantering with fans, has nearly 1.5 million followers.
“It’s not all rosy all the time,” said White, who once offered to fly in a fan that wanted to slap him. “But I don’t block anybody, either.”
White encourages his fighters’ involvement as well, even bringing in social media professional Amy Martin to give 300 of his athletes a five-day seminar. Martin, founder of Digital Royalty, a company that develops social media strategies for celebrities, teams and athletes, showed the fighters how to more effectively use resources such as Twitter.
Now White is sweetening the deal for his athletes to remain Twitter savvy, offering $240,000 annually in bonuses for meeting benchmarks such as highest growth percentage, most amount of followers and most creative campaign.
“The UFC is absolutely ahead of the curve,” said Martin, who recently helped Shaquille O’Neal announce his retirement through social media. “It’s a part of their business DNA.”
White wouldn’t mind if his fighters tweeted in between rounds, should they figure out a way to type with gloves on.
That’s quite a different stance than the NBA as the league banned players from using Twitter during games. It’s a rule enacted after Charlie Villanueva, then with the Milwaukee Bucks, created a stir when he sent a message at halftime.
New Orleans Saints tailback Reggie Bush also generated some controversy on Twitter, riling up fans when he posted: “Everybody complaining about the lockout! Shoot I’m making the most of it! Vacation, rest, relaxing, appearances here and there! I’m good!”
Bush later insisted he was just kidding.
To White, that tweet should hardly have been an issue. It’s precisely the kind of chitchat he wants from his fighters.
“Do you honestly believe Reggie Bush meant that? That he would rather be sitting on the couch watching TV instead of getting paid millions of dollars and doing what he loves to do?” White said. “He’s just interacting with the fans and he gets in trouble.”
In White’s opinion, no tweet is taboo. He doesn’t muzzle his fighters.
“Social media is a home run for us,” said White, whose organization recently launched the “Octagon Nation Tour,” a traveling show that allows fans to test their skills in fitness challenges and interact with fighters. “The Internet has always been our culture. When we first bought this thing, this thing was so dead, nobody would cover it. If our fans wanted to know what was going on, they all went to the Internet. So as technology grew, we loved it and went after it.”
But with fighters having free rein, UFC follower Amy Barton wonders if tweets might become too edgy.
“Eventually, there’s going to be something that happens, probably on Twitter, that’s going to cause a major media commotion,” said Barton, who lives in Daytona Beach, Fla., and hosts an Internet radio show dedicated mostly to the UFC. “And it maybe changes how you use Twitter.”
For Barton, following a particular fighter on Twitter boils down to this: Be witty and she’s on board.
“I don’t follow a whole bunch, only because it becomes white noise,” Barton said. “With the over-saturation of fighters, there are so many to follow that unless they have something personal or specific to say, you end up getting the same story.
“But if they’re chronically funny, I will follow.”
A year ago, after taking in a late-night movie in New York City, White tweeted that he had a limited number of free tickets to anyone who showed up on the corner of Fifth Avenue.
Within moments, more than 500 people had arrived, leading a frozen yogurt store nearby to quickly close in fear of the raucous crowd.
“Looked like a riot,” White said, laughing. “Every time I do this, give away free tickets, the police show up. This is the most amazing marketing tool in the history of the world.”
The fighters, both past and present, are amassing quite a legion of fans as well. Reigning UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva has 309,000 followers, while Chuck Liddell is up to nearly 175,000. Even up-and-comers like heavyweight Brendan Schaub, a former University of Colorado fullback turned MMA standout, has more than 22,000 followers.
In fact, Schaub recently tweeted that he was at a Starbucks in Denver, offering to buy coffee for anyone who approached him.
“Spent $200 at Starbucks,” Schaub marveled. “Let’s just say I’m a gold member after that. We’re definitely on the cutting edge of things as far as social media.”
Schaub also found out he will be fighting at UFC 134 in Rio this August not through word of mouth or a phone call but on Twitter.
For weeks, he anxiously awaited word on whether he would be picked to face Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
“I looked on UFC Twitter and there it was,” Schaub said. “I’m like, ‘Is that for real?’ The UFC doesn’t post rumors, only serious news. So I knew it was a good day.”