The UFC has long been ahead of the curve on social media.
Compared to other, more mainstream sports organizations, the fight company has just flat been better at grasping the power of new-fangled tools like Facebook and Twitter. Born part out of ingenuity and part out of necessity, you could argue the UFC’s more accessible quasi-guerrilla marketing strategy is one reason it has been so successful at building its brand among young people during the last few years.
While the NFL and NBA continue to crack down on athletes using social networking, the UFC has gone whole hog, employing an Arizona-based marketing firm that specializes in new media strategies for corporations and celebrities and offering its fighters financial incentives for staying active on Twitter. As a result, the promotion and its employees have cultivated a vast network of followers it can utilize for direct marketing, keeping tabs on fan chatter and generating demographic information while controlling and shaping breaking news.
That’s the upside.
The considerable downside we saw play out in terms of very real world consequences on Thursday, when former WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Torres got the axe a couple of days after tweeting a one-liner about “rape vans” he reportedly saw on TV. It was the UFC’s third public sexual assault joke in recent memory, but unlike the very similar remarks made by former “Ultimate Fighter” winners Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans, something about this one made it a firing offense in the eyes of UFC brass.
Naturally, this is the inherent risk in Zuffa’s social media marketing campaign. When you encourage somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 professional fighters to share their unfiltered thoughts with the masses -- Torres has nearly 50,000 followers -- in staccato burst of 140 characters or less, mistakes are going to be made. Mistakes that have been committed to writing and will live on forever in the unforgiving elephantine brain of the Internet.
Especially when you offer a cash prize to the fighter who does the “most creative” job.
Especially when there is nothing to tell said fighter what’s permissible and what’s not, no policy or guidelines in place aside from telling him to "use common sense."
Because of the lack of formal policy, it's still hard to discern exactly what made Torres’ gaffe so much worse than the others, even after hearing UFC President Dana White's explanation. Maybe it was because Torres didn’t have as good a justification for his specific rape joke as Griffin did for tweeting his a few weeks ago (it was sparked by what he was seeing on the news) or Evans did for speaking his into a microphone at public news conference this week (to get under an opponent and college rival's skin). Maybe it was just the third strike for fighters so soon after White had to reprimand those two jokers, or maybe it was because White found out about Torres’ remark during an interview with a reporter during a high-profile fight week.
Whatever the reason, Torres is now unemployed after broadcasting a thoughtless crack, probably while he was sitting on his couch on a winter night watching television. If that doesn’t speak to the reach and power of social media, I don’t know what does.
In any case, it’s strange that a company so ahead of the curve on reaping the rewards of social media has been so behind the curve in establishing a policy to manage its risks.