UFC’s Co-Founder Campbell McLaren On Bringing MMA to Latino Audiences

Combate Americas CEO Campbell McLaren

At one point in his life, Campbell McLaren was in the middle of the action at the famous Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City during the standup comedy boom of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

“I worked with Jerry Seinfeld, Howie Mandel, Jay Leno, Ellen Degeneres. It was a list of the top comedians in the world. At [that time] there [were] 1700 comedy clubs in the U.S. and I’m at the preeminent one.”

McLaren leveraged his experience at Caroline’s into helping create the Ultimate Fighting Championship. As strange as it sounds to go from the comedy world to mixed martial arts, the progression was logical, he says.

Thanks to his work at Caroline’s, he was producing TV sitcoms and pay per view (PPV) specials (comedy and music). Germany’s Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG) had a division that oversaw putting their music acts on PPV. The division was losing a lot of money and brought McLaren in as someone who could put other shows onto PPV.

Naturally, McLaren focused on comedy at first, but he began looking at events that had a built in, passionate fanbase. That’s when he met Art Davie, a promoter, and Rorion Gracie of the Gracie Jiu jitsu family, who were trying to get a unique combat fighting event off the ground. Inspired by the popularity of the Mortal Kombat video game, McLaren thought a reality version that combined different combat fighting styles would be very popular.

“You’d have a karate guy, a Sumo guy, a boxer, someone who did Jiu jitsu. You’d put them all together and see what martial art was the best.” The three combined to create the first ever UFC event in late 1993. Before the days of social media, McLaren had to try uncommon methods to market the event. “I was calling karate and taekwondo clubs and telling them they had to check out this event.”

McLaren was the executive producer of the first 12 UFC shows as it slowly grew into a phenomenon. He stayed on as a consultant until the 22nd show before stepping away. In a now-famous transaction, BMG, the majority owner of the UFC, sold the enterprise to Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta’s Zuffa LLC for $2 million in 2001. The Fertitta brothers brought on Dana White as president. White transformed the UFC into a global enterprise with revenues reportedly in the hundreds of millions. The company sold in 2016 to WME-IMG for $4 billion.

“BMG was very uncomfortable with the controversy,” McLaren says regarding the heat UFC was getting from Senator John McCain, who called MMA “human cockfighting” and demanded it become sanctioned like boxing. “They were a big German state-run media company. They didn’t want a U.S. Senator mad at them.”

The start of a new MMA company

A few years after leaving the UFC behind, McLaren saw an opportunity to not only get back in the MMA game but run his own company as well. He started Combate Americas in 2013, which is an MMA company that specifically caters to the Hispanic market. He says this an area that has been underserved by the UFC.

“There was a real opening because for the UFC to embrace Hispanic culture, it would probably be impossible without creating problems for its base audience. So there was a real opportunity to provide something UFC could or would not do,” he says. McLaren didn’t want to see it as he was competing with UFC, so he met White and Lorenzo Fertitta and told them what he was planning on doing. Once he got their blessing, it was off to the races.

By the time he started Combate Americas, MMA had become sanctioned by athletic commissions and was governed by unified rules. This allowed him to focus less on regulations and more on what could make this league stand out.

The first part of his strategy was getting the fighters to represent their national identities, which would give fans a sense of pride in their countries. This was something he saw successfully done in soccer, Latin America’s most popular sport. Another strategy he took was to sign young fighters who were very early in their careers, rather getting past-their-prime guys or trying to lure big names.

“I don’t have a Conor McGregor or a Ronda Rousey or any big-name fighters. My strategy was to replace controversy with passion and make the organization known. Make the organization stand for something. Make the organization the famous part of the equation until I could build up these next generation stars. Those two things have helped us gain so much success quickly.”

What kind of success? A TV deal with Univision, the biggest Spanish-language channel in the U.S., for starters. In fact, a few weeks ago, Combate Americas averaged more viewers for that week’s card than UFC or Bellator. What’s more, McLaren says, the league is bringing an impressive list of sponsors, finding global distribution partners and is heading towards its first-ever cashflow positive year.

Along with attracting a different audience than the UFC, McLaren also attributes the success to the growing Hispanic population in the U.S. and the increasing growth of Facebook in Latin America. Combate Americas puts its preliminary fight cards on Facebook Live, which is where most of its fans watch the product.

“A lot of things have come together to enable us to have this explosive growth. And I mean explosive,” he says. “We are projecting $25 million in revenue this year. We did $2 million in revenue last year.”

Execution time for Combate Americas

With this growth comes the need to execute its strategy to enable it to keep accelerating forward. McLaren calls it a “classic business challenge.” He is bringing in senior-level people, opening operations in Mexico City, increasing its distribution channels and working to continually attract cross-border sponsors and advertisers.  He has brought on Joe Plumeri, former CEO of Citibank North America, to bring in his management expertise and apply it to the company.

“This isn’t just ‘I hope it works out.’ This is going out every day and executing our plan. It’s about taking a startup and turning it into a well-run established company.”

McLaren has ambitious goals, but he isn’t unrealistic. He knows MMA will never usurp soccer in Latin America, but maybe it can find a spot right below.

“I want to be the number two sport for Hispanic sports fans. Number one is soccer…I think there is tremendous opportunity for us because no other sport has come close to soccer. There’s nothing that’s broken through on a mass scale to be the number two sport. That’s what this year is going to be for us.”

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Gabriel Perna: Gabriel Perna is the digital editor at Chief Executive Group, overseeing content on chiefexecutive.net and boardmember.com. Previously, he was at Physicians Practice and Healthcare Informatics. You can reach him via email or on Twitter at @GabrielSPerna