One can only imagine what it must feel like to have been a co-founder of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), launched in 1993, sold for just $2 million in 2001 and then sold again in 2016 for $4 billion. Campbell McLaren can speak to it. He created and executive produced the first 22 UFC pay-per-view events dating back to 1993.
And McLaren is interestingly not done trying to re-imagine and innovate the sport of fighting and mixed martial arts (MMA). He is building a platform called Combate Americas, an up-and-coming MMA league that has emerged as a premier Hispanic MMA franchise. Next month, McLaren and his partners will be hosting a major event for the startup league in Los Angeles at the Shine.
I recently spoke with McLaren about what it is like to do another startup in the MMA space, the parallels and differences from working with UFC and more.
What were some of the early challenges in creating with UFC?
McLaren: I think the biggest challenge in launching the UFC was getting the word out about this brand new, unique, compelling program. There was no social media, no Twitter back then. Betty White has a joke that I liken it to... 'In my day, there was no Facebook only phone book.'
To a great extent we used phone books. We called every dojo gym in America to tell them about it and that their athletes should watch it. There wasn't a network type of communication that would let us promote it. And it definitely wasn't cost effective to do TV advertising. On top of all of that, the press was uninterested. That was another big challenge, which I solved by using controversy as the vehicle to create buzz.
How did you know when was the right time to leave the UFC to focus on new opportunities?
McLaren: I think when John McCain called me a 'threat to Western Civilization,' I saw the writing on the wall.
What made you believe that creating Combate Americas was the next important move in your professional life?
McLaren: Combate Americas struck me as potentially the biggest opportunity that I ever had, including launching the UFC. I saw that there was a huge group of sports fans that didn't have anything to root for. Combate fit perfectly into the demographics of the US/Hispanic World. But, the more we got into it, the more we saw that in Spanish sports its soccer and nothing else. We quickly saw that we could become another avenue for Spanish sports fans, which is nearly 1 billion fans worldwide.
What did you learn from UFC that you will use (or not use) in running your new startup, Combate Americas?
McLaren: I learned that it's hard to reinvent the wheel, which we really did at the UFC. It was a brand new sport that went through a lot of bumps. When I saw that Combate Americas was very uniquely positioned to pick up a big fan base quickly, instead of reinventing the rules or changing the format, we looked to the success of UFC. We looked to the success of boxing. And we looked to the global dominance of soccer. I said, 'How can I incorporate the best of these?'
What that became was Combate's great format to really using soccer and boxing rivalries - whether it's Brazil v Argentina or Mexico v US or Puerto Rico v Mexico. We're taking those rivalries and putting it together in a way that fans already understand the conflict, so that help brings it to a 'new sport,' for them. It's really hard to start something. At the beginning of the UFC, I had no idea where the fight would take place and where to stage the action. Starting Combate let us focus on some other aspects of this; such as how do we bring in a new generation because our audience is 20 years younger than the UFC and how do we bring in a new group of fans.