Las Vegas-based UFC held its first mainland China event and is now looking at Russia.

UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence “Ike” Epstein Talks China, Russia and Dana White ‘Lookin’ for a Fight’ in Both Countries

By ALAN SNEL

 

LVSportsBiz.com chatted with Lawrence “Ike” Epstein, UFC chief operating officer about the recent fight show staged in mainland China by the MMA fight promotion, media and event production organization. UFC President Dana White may be the organization’s colorful and brash front man on TV and social media. But Epstein is the behind-the-scenes guy making sure all the business deals are cut and executed  to UFC standards.

 

LVSportsBiz.com learned that UFC is looking to stage a fight show event in Russia in 2018 and that it’s considering letting White loose in either China or Russia for an episode of the UFC-produced “Lookin’ for a Fight” show that allows White to roam a local market in search of the next UFC star.

 

On Tuesday, LVSportsBiz.com went one-on-one with Epstein.

UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence “Ike” Epstein. Photo credit: UFC

 

LVSB: Why mainland China? What does mainland China offer UFC from a business angle?

Epstein: China and Asia in general are the birthplace of martial arts from a historical perspective. China is the most populated country and it’s the second biggest economy and soon to be the largest economy in the world. UFC is not just a North American sport like the NFL or NBA. It’s a global sport.

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LVSB: I know UFC held three events in Macau — how did this particular fight event in mainland China differ on the business side from the prior Macau events?
Epstein: Macau is part of China, but a separate autonomous region. The ability to do a UFC event in Macau is different from mainland China. We planned out the entry into the mainland China market over a period of years. We sold out the arena with a very knowledgeable fan base at the event. There were eight Chinese fighters on the card, five of which won. Macau is used to a lot of events coming through there.
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LVSB: What specific business planning things did UFC have to do to stage this mainland China event that you didn’t have to do for the Macau events or events in other countries?
Epstein: There are two completely different regulatory markets in Macau and Shanghai. In Macau, it’s very easy to deal with the casinos and they have latitude to stage any event they want. There was limited approvals in Macau. In mainland China you deal with regulatory situations on the ground and a variety of approvals from local authorities and police. There were more things we had to do in Shanghai.
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LVSB: With Endeavor controlling the majority interest of UFC and IMG having local operations around the world, do you envision more events in China?
Epstein: IMG has local operations in China and is the event operator in the market. We got lots of resources on the ground from IMG and we were able to leverage all those resources for regulatory approvals to event-related public relations. Endeavor owns the majority stake in UFC and IMG is an Endeavor company.
UFC hopes to use its mainland China coverage and potential Russia fight shows to enhance its broadcast rights value.
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LVSB: What impact will Endeavor-IMG have on UFC’s international footprint?
Epstein: We’ll be able to do more international activities, more content distribution deals and more media, PR and social media. We have more arms and legs to leverage UFC. Before, we only had a certain amount of bandwidth, so we focused on markets like Brazil. Now, they give us more resources to do more events, more robust TV deals and more social media.
UFC looks to China and Russia to expand its brand’s global appeal.
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LVSB: What about Russia? Has UFC staged fight events in Russia before? What are plans for Russia?
Epstein: No, we have not done an event in Russia. But we are looking at an event in Russia in 2018. We’re looking at the possibility of Russia. We’re looking at the possibility of cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and  a variety of others.
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LVSB: What potential does Russia offer as a place to hold UFC fight events?
Epstein: Russia is not as big as China and has some great characteristics. There is a tremendous amount of talent there. Culturally, people enjoy combat sports there. It’s a large country with a big economy. We’re already on TV there. We’re looking at (holding an event in) Russia for 2018.
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LVSB: I understand UFC is discussing a new broadcast rights deal. What kind of value does staging fight events in mainland China and/or Russia have for potential new broadcast rights holders?
Epstein: The live event is the DNA of the UFC. There’s always something special and there’s an energy and we try and infuse that energy into everything we do. It sparks demand and interest for the UFC product. The social media connections are unprecedented. It enhances interest in the sport and the UFC brand when new deals are entered into. The passion of the fans and interest in the content are paramount when they are bidding for the rights.
UFC will search the world for MMA fighters for its roster.
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LVSB: There was a Sports Business Journal report of a possible $200 million deal with FOX — any update on that?
Epstein: There is nothing to say on US broadcast rights.
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LVSB: Any chance that Dana White can do an episode of Lookin’ for a Fight in China or Russia?
Epstein: Absolutely. That is not light-hearted or far-fetched. He’s always looking for opportunities to bring in new talent
Dana White might hold his Lookin for a Fight show in China or Russia.
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LVSB: Is UFC using the China event to recruit Chinese fighters into UFC?
Epstein: There were eight Chinese fighters and five won their fights. There is definitely some significant talent in China. It’s only going to get bigger and better with the possibilities of a Chinese champion in the very near future.
Contact LVSportsBiz.com founder/writer Alan Snel at asnel@LVSportsBiz.com

Alan Snel

Alan Snel brings decades of sports-business reporting experience to LVSportsBiz.com.

Snel covered the business side of sports for the South Florida (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel, the Tampa Tribune and Las Vegas Review-Journal. As a city hall beat reporter, Snel also covered stadium deals in Denver and Seattle.

In 2000, Snel launched a sport-business website for FoxSports.com called FoxSportsBiz.com.

After reporting sports-business for the RJ, Snel wrote hard-hitting stories on the Raiders stadium for the Desert Companion magazine in Las Vegas and The Nevada Independent.

Snel is also one of the top bicycle advocates in the country.

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