SBJ/February 21-27, 2010/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Toronto bout to shatter UFC crowd, gate marks

The ever effusive president of the UFC, Dana White, often said he feared that promoting a mixed martial arts event in a baseball or football stadium would be like selling tickets to watch two ants fight on the top of a matchbox.

Score one for the ants.

UFC press conference
NEWSCOM
The UFC’s first stadium show, scheduled for April 30 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, will yield a sellout crowd of 55,000 and a gate of more than $11 million, obliterating the sanctioning body’s records in both columns and the stadium’s gate record thanks to frenzied sales for UFC’s debut event in Ontario, which approved MMA legislation in August.

Initially configuring the building for 42,000 seats, priced from $50 to $800, UFC sold all of those during a Feb. 10 presale open only to club members who pay annual dues of $75. It added 13,000 seats, all of which went briskly in the next two days.

UFC 129
IOMEDIA
UFC President Dana White was “blown away” by how fast tickets sold for UFC’s Rogers Centre event on April 30.
Using elevated floor seating, a 30-foot-by-60-foot HD video board, a dozen additional hanging video screens positioned around the stadium and an amped-up version of its already frenetic in-arena entertainment, White promises UFC will deliver fans an even better experience than they’ve gotten at previous events.

“First time I walked in [to Rogers Centre], I said, ‘This is awesome. This is 100 percent going to work,’” said White, who admitted to being “blown away” by the rapid sellout. “I loved it. I love the way it’s configured. I could tell with the way we’ll lay this out, there won’t be a bad seat in the house. And that’s not something I would have expected.”

UFC will nearly triple its attendance record of 23,152, set in December at Bell Centre in Montreal. It will more than double the MMA gate record of $5.1 million set in Las Vegas in July 2009 and triple Rogers Centre’s gate record of $3.8 million, set by Wrestlemania in 2002.

After resisting previous suggestions that he take a crack at a stadium show, White finally relented late last year when his recently hired director of Canadian operations, Tom Wright, recommended he consider Rogers Centre for UFC’s Toronto debut.

Wright was optimistic from the start. He knew the stadium well, having hosted a Grey Cup game there as commissioner of the Canadian Football League in 2007. He’d been to many events there as a spectator dating to the stadium’s opening in 1989. He was there for a U2 show that drew more than 50,000.

Still, Wright knew that what worked for other productions might not work for the UFC.

“I had great seats for U2, and it could have been [anyone] down there on the floor instead of Bono,” Wright said. “That’s normal for a big band experience. It’s not normal for our sport.

“The epiphany was when Craig [Borsari, UFC’s senior vice president of production] made his first visit. The floor was empty. The place was empty. And it is big when it’s empty. But with a creative guy like Craig, you see possibilities. You see how interesting and how creative and how experiential he can make it.”

Much of their work was in the placement of video screens. As at many of its events, UFC will bring in a center-hung board. In Toronto, it will hang another half-dozen screens throughout the stadium, positioning them so that all the fans in distant sections have good views, but none are blocked by them.

The floor will be configured to hold nearly 12,000 spectators paying $300 to $800, with vast stretches of risers installed to allow for clear views from the back. Creating that elevation meant eliminating large swaths of seats at the front of the lower level.

“That’s a small arena on the floor,” Wright said. “We’re bringing in these bleacher packs at the north and south end that go as high as 14 feet at the back. Those will be great seats. But they also mean losing other seats. We killed 8,000 or 9,000 seats, but it wasn’t about let’s not do that because we’ll have to kill those seats. We’ve got to do it.”

Field-level and club-level seats were priced at $150 to $225. Upper-level seats were $50 to $75. In order to show fans exactly what to expect from a stadium venue, UFC used a 3-D seat selector from ticketing technology vendor IOMedia. Buyers were able not only to see the view from their seats but also to pan to see where the video boards will be.

“This is going to be a huge social event,” Wright said. “It’s all about being there when it happens. It will be our first time in a stadium and first time north of 50,000. It’s huge and global and people just want to be part of it.”

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