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Volume 7 No. 149

People and Pop Culture

Lawrence Epstein says that Russia has "all of the things that you'd want to see" in a new market.
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

LAWRENCE EPSTEIN is UFC's Senior Exec VP & COO. Ahead of the promotion's first fight night in Moscow on Saturday at Olimpiyskiy Arena, UFC will host a two-day fan experience that will be free and open to the public on Friday and Saturday. Fans will be able to meet current UFC athletes including heavyweight ALEXANDER ZOLKOV, flyweight HENRY CEJUDO and women's flyweight VALENTINA SHEVCHENKO. Reebok, Toyota, Monster Energy and betting firm Parimatch will be among the UFC sponsors with a presence at the fanfest. ANDRE GROMKOVSKI, who is in charge of a new office in Moscow, was appointed UFC VP of Russia in May to lead UFC's push into the market. Epstein talked about what makes Russia an attractive market, UFC's plans for the region and how he views the growing number of new MMA promotions worldwide.

On the appeal of the Russian market ... 
Lawrence Epstein: We've known for a long time that Russia is a big and important market for the UFC. First of all, we have, and have had for quite some time, a lot of fans there -- our research indicates about 17 million fans in Russia. No. 2, we have a lot of athletes that come from Russia and the CIS countries. So we've got interest, we've got talent and we also have, in general, a cultural affinity for combat sports. It's sort of all of the things that you'd want to see: a lot of fans, cultural affinity and of course athletes coming from the territory, that made us conclude many years ago that Russia was a great market for us to try to capitalize on.

On how Endeavor acquiring UFC in '16 helped the entry into Russia ...
Epstein: Unfortunately, prior to the acquisition by Endeavor, we just didn't have the bandwidth to devote to developing this market. We certainly had television deals, we distributed content into the market, but we just didn't have the bandwidth to do what we're doing now, which is put on live events and really go into the market in a real substantial way. When the acquisition took place a couple years ago, this was one of the priority markets that we wanted to try to exploit. The reality was, we had about 350 employees before the acquisition. Post our combination with Endeavor, we have 5,000 employees around the world. Before the acquisition, we had four international offices: Singapore, São Paulo, London and Toronto. Now we've got 50 offices that we can leverage from the Endeavor network of companies. So with the new resources, with the new contacts, we were able to put together a joint venture in Russia. 

Photo: ufc

On how UFC is dealing with the political implications of holding an event in Moscow ...
Epstein: The first thing that we do when we go to any new market is try to understand the culture. And when I say culture, I mean the business culture, the political culture and the social culture of that particular market. We've been in Brazil now for eight or 10 years doing events, but before we ever did an event, [former CEO] Lorenzo Fertitta and myself went down to Brazil, spent a week there touring throughout the country, talking to everyone from politicians to business leaders to television executives to sponsors ... anybody who would talk to us, to try to get us smarter about everything that had to do with Brazil. So the game plan for Russia was the same thing. We wanted to make sure we understood all of the issues, all of the moving pieces. Part of that is understanding the political environment. There obviously is a lot going on between Russia and the U.S. right now at the political level, but that really hasn't impeded us at all in putting together our joint venture and ultimately putting together this event and our television distribution deals and everything that goes into putting on an event.

On UFC's next steps in Russia after Saturday night...
Epstein: First things first, we've got to put this event on, and it's always a challenge ... Once we get that behind us, there are a couple of things that we're going to focus on. No. 1 is building an office [led by Gromkovski]. ... We're going to look to do a couple of events in Russia and the CIS countries in 2019 and beyond. So we're going to make a commitment to doing live events in the market. And then we currently have a distribution deal with Match TV, and we will either be extending that deal in 2019 or putting together a new distribution strategy for the market. That's going to obviously be a big focus of ours over the next several months: pinning that content distribution for Russia and the CIS countries.

On whether new MMA promotions are viewed as competition or a positive for the sport ...
Epstein: It's definitely both. There's no doubt, whether you talk about Bellator in the U.S. or ONE Championship globally, or many others, these other promoters are absolutely competitors. But we don't necessarily see it as a zero-sum game. We can only do a certain number of events per year. If Bellator or ONE FC does an event and somebody sees that event, and they like it, we feel that's good for us, because if they like what they saw in those other organizations, they may want to check out the UFC, too. We feel that the sport of mixed martial arts has got a tremendous amount of growth in front of it. The fact that we can only do a certain number of events means that what others are doing around the world is key to growing the sport. We're hopeful that fans ultimately sample our product, even if they come in through another promoter somewhere around the globe.

Check out SBD Global next week for more on UFC's int'l growth.

Hangin' With runs every Friday in SBD Global.

NATHAN GODFREY's departure from his job as CEO of the Canterbury Rugby Football Union was "messy and confusing." Godfrey indicated to CRFU Board Chair PETER WINCHESTER in early August that "he wanted out of one of the top provincial rugby jobs in New Zealand." Then, on Aug. 17, Godfrey announced he was "going on leave" from the offices at Rugby Park in Christchurch, New Zealand, to take a sabbatical, and work on his MBA thesis until Sept. 5. CFO TONY SMAIL was appointed acting CEO. But Godfrey, after 20 months in the job, never returned. It "also turns out" his resignation was accepted mid-August (STUFF, 9/13). ... The Professional Fighters League named PETER VESEY SVP/global brand partnerships & media sales. Vesey was most recently BSE global VP/global partnerships and previously worked with NASCAR, UFC and Fox (PFL). 

US Open champion NAOMI OSAKA revealed on "The Ellen Show" what SERENA WILLIAMS said after her "shock win." Osaka: "She said that she was proud of me and that I should know that the crowd wasn't booing at me, so I was really happy she said that. At the time, I did kind of think they were booing at me, 'cause I couldn't tell what was going on because it was just so loud in there. It was just a little bit stressful" (SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, 9/13). ... Formula 1 driver KIMI RÄIKKÖNEN was "hardly in the mood" to talk about why he is leaving Ferrari F1 next season. Speaking at a news conference ahead of Sunday's Singapore Grand Prix, he "reverted to his typically monosyllabic and nonchalant style when asked about the reasons for his departure." Räikkönen said, "This is what happened. It's not up to me and it's not my decision. This is the outcome. At least we have an outcome." When asked if he was "happy to join a lesser team like Sauber," he said, "Why not? Because I want to go. Why do you make it so complicated?" (AP, 9/13). ... France national football team Manager DIDIER DESCHAMPS had a second stadium named in his honor. Deschamps already has a stadium named after him, located in his hometown of Bayonne, but "added to his collection" with the renaming of the Stade Marquet in Monaco (London DAILY MAIL, 9/12). ... Former England cricket captain PAUL COLLINGWOOD will retire from professional cricket at the end of the current season, his County Championship side, Durham, announced. Collingwood, 42, became the first England captain to win a trophy at a global tournament when he guided the team to the Int'l Cricket Council World T20 in '10. He was part of three Ashes series wins over Australia before retiring from int'l cricket in '11 (REUTERS, 9/13).