Ready for a Fight

As the rise of mixed martial arts continues, the UFC’s Tom Wright is expanding and building on its success in Canada and beyond

Photo by Zuffa Canada Productions, ULC.
Photo by Zuffa Canada Productions, ULC.

In May 2010, Tom Wright stood at a podium in front of an array of reporters as cameras flashed around him at the Rogers Centre. By his side was UFC president Dana White, who introduced Wright as director of UFC’s Canadian operations. Having sold out events in the only Canadian city they had visited—Montréal—UFC leaders were optimistic, but Wright knew he was in for a challenge. In stepping into the role of managing director and opening the company’s Toronto office, he’d need to connect with fans across Canada’s expansive geography, educate prospective viewers on the growing sport’s rules and athletes, organize elaborate live events to entice crowds, and convince government officials to sanction and regulate mixed martial arts (MMA).

UFC made a splash when the group entered Canada in 2008. By May 2010, a large and loyal fan base was growing, but governments, regulators, and athletic commissions threatened to stall progress. In Wright, UFC executives found an accomplished and respected sports and business leader capable of operating in government circles while catering a largely American product for its neighbours to the north. Born and raised in Toronto, Wright served as president of adidas Canada and Salomon North America before taking over as commissioner of the Canadian Football League from 2002 to 2006.

During his CFL tenure, Wright overcame some significant hurdles. “As a league, the CFL had lost its way, and we needed to reestablish our brand, get back to our roots, and establish a foundation to grow again,” Wright says. After a failed push for US expansion, the struggling football league faced several ownership issues and off-field problems. Wright, who found himself fighting with owners for a salary cap, wanted to strengthen the game and build the CFL brand. In 2005, the CFL shattered its own league attendance records with sales surpassing 2.3 million. Today, the healthy football league ranks as the second most popular professional sports organization in the country.

Wright hopes that success—specifically his ability to build upon a strong brand—will carry over to his efforts with UFC. When he joined the organization in 2010, UFC had Georges St-Pierre as a popular champion and a solid TV partner in Rogers. Furthermore, pay-per-view business was booming. UFC was thriving in Canada, but Wright and his colleagues at the home office in Las Vegas knew they could take it to a whole new level.

And that’s what they’ve spent the past five years doing together. After the initial press conference in 2010, Wright left the Rogers Centre and drove to his Toronto home, where he had a makeshift office in his kitchen. He spent three months working as the only full-time UFC staffer in Canada, making frequent calls to Las Vegas while getting up to speed on the business of the sport, the legal hurdles, and UFC’s potential in Canada.

From there, Wright built his team. “If you don’t surround yourself with really good, competent, experienced people, you don’t have a prayer,” he says. “I didn’t care if the people I hired could spell MMA; I wanted people that knew marketing, business, and branding.” Building and engaging a relatively young fan base for a growing sport would take time. Growth, Wright knew, would have to be managed and nurtured.

Although a few obstacles remained for UFC in Canada, Wright started to make ground. “Canadians like to deal with Canadians, and they like to see that organizations that want to come to this country are actually committed to it,” he says. “They want people to know the difference between Saint John and St. John’s.” Understanding the cultural nuances proved vital. At first, UFC’s head office in Las Vegas assumed Québec was its largest market. After all, it had planned and hosted four large and successful live events in Montréal—the province’s largest city and Canada’s second-largest metropolis. But after doing some research, Wright discovered that UFC Canada was actually doing more business in a province that holds just four percent of the nation’s population: Saskatchewan.

Facts & Figures

17
Live Events in Canada, 2008–2014

320,000
Approximate total live attendance

7
Host cities (Calgary, Halifax, Montréal, Québec City, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg)

$65 million
Approximate total gate revenue

$275 million
Approximate local economic output

4
Single-day attendance records (Calgary, Scotiabank Saddledome; Montréal, Bell Centre; Toronto, Rogers Centre; Winnipeg, MTS Centre)

45+
Global live events per year

Wright took a patient approach and promoted the cultural and economic benefits of UFC. “We tried to avoid emotion and argue with facts and objectivity,” he says. “It was important to be transparent.” Canada’s big four sports—hockey, baseball, football, and basketball—are more than 100 years old. In 2013, the UFC celebrated its 20-year anniversary. Wright needed to dispel myths linked to ignorance regarding a relatively young sport. “It’s a combat and contact sport, but it’s not as violent as football or hockey,” he says. “There are, in fact, rules—lots of rules. We literally run to regulation because we want our sport to be safe for athletes, officials, and spectators,” he says. In 2013, the House of Commons passed S-209, a bill that removed a prohibition on mixed martial arts in Canada.   To find greater success, Wright and his colleagues knew they would have to create innovative ways to take UFC across the country. And connecting with fans across Canada’s wide terrain presents its share of challenges with both geography and legislation. Live events became key to reaching fans, but any effort to bring live UFC events to varying cities and provinces across Canada would require changes in legislation. Section 83 of Canada’s Criminal Code, previously changed in 1935, outlawed any form of prizefighting except for boxing. Wright set out on a quest to meet with lawmakers to change the outdated law. UFC’s expansion strategy centred around live events, and unless Wright was successful, those events would remain technically illegal. “In 2010, I could watch the UFC on TV or buy the video game in a myriad of retailers; I could go out and train in MMA; but in some provinces, I wasn’t allowed to watch it live,” he says.

After bringing continuity to the regulatory environment, Wright was able to build a network of UFC events across the country. “Live events are the anchor of what we’re doing in Canada,” he says. “It’s how we engage fans and showcase our athletes. There’s nothing quite like a live UFC event.” In April 2011, just nine months after receiving provincial sanction for MMA, UFC drew 55,000 people to the Rogers Centre, beating events hosted by the NFL, the CFL, and the rock band U2, and ultimately setting the venue’s all-time gross revenue gate record. Since then, UFC Canada has introduced the UFC Experience Tour to take the sport into smaller, rural communities and has also expanded into five other provinces as it establishes itself as one of the nation’s top-tier sports properties.

In 2015, UFC aims to expand UFC Canada’s live-event schedule. Wright is also working to introduce a UFC Gym concept, having already launched an at-home fitness and nutrition product called UFC Fit. He hopes to reach all 10 provinces before the end of 2019. But as Wright and UFC reach new levels of success in Canada, the work is far from over—Wright is also in charge of managing the business of the sport in Australia and New Zealand and has already rolled out events to Auckland, Sydney, and Brisbane. And if his experience is any indication of what’s to come for UFC abroad, the sky is the limit.