Operation Sauerkraut: UFC Targets Germany

By Tim Leidecker Aug 23, 2007
When Ultimate Fighting Championship owner Lorenzo Fertitta claimed in an interview two months ago that the UFC would be in Germany by 2008, it seemed like a pipe dream given the conservative nature of the country.

However Sherdog.com has learned that the UFC's move into Deutschland is far more advanced than even most experts in the fight game would have expected.

It all started with a rumor on a German message board: Oliver Copp, who does the German commentary on UFC DVDs, encouraged fans to root for Randy Couture (Pictures) in his title defense against Gabriel "Napão" Gonzaga, as "The Natural" would be "the perfect representative for the UFC's Germany debut in early 2008."

Copp had been an intermediary between UFC promoter Zuffa and German pay-per-view channel Premiere for the past couple of years, so his words carried some weight.

At first, the thought of Zuffa running a show in Germany seemed strange because the UFC does not even have a TV deal there. The contract with Premiere, which televised UFC pay-per-views from 2004 to 2006, expired after UFC 57 when the German channel did not accept Zuffa's increased financial demands.

For the past 18 months "Zuffa and Premiere have continued negotiations in order to put the UFC back on German TV," Premiere Product Manager PPV & onDemand Sport Markus Fortner told Sherdog.com.

Due to the abysmal buy-rates, no UFC show managed more than 5,000 buys, which is miniscule even by German standards -- even after more than 16 years in the market, the German TV audience has still not embraced the PPV concept at all. As a result, neither Zuffa nor Premiere was overly committed to reaching a new deal.

With the allegedly impending UFC debut on German soil, a TV deal is an absolute must now. Due to the restrictions of the German PPV market, Zuffa is concentrating on landing on one of the private networks that are freely available to anyone with a TV. The obvious choice is RTL (comparable to NBC in the United States) due to its close connection to other fight sports.

Boxing heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko is at home with the Cologne-based channel, as were former light heavyweight champions Henry Maske and Dariusz Michalczewski.

An RTL spokesman told Sherdog.com that even though the channel is "open-minded about interesting sports events, televising the UFC is not planned at this time."

Another issue for Zuffa will be the actual organization of the event. Since the promotion does not have an office in Germany and UFC's UK branch, led by president Marshall Zelaznik, has no experience in running in Germany, they will have to secure outside manpower.

The problem is that no German promoter has ever attempted filling the "Kölnarena" in Cologne, which holds 20,000 spectators, or the brand-new, state-of-the-art "O2 World" in Berlin (max. attendance: 17,000), both possible targets for the UFC's German debut.

So to stage its show the only option for Zuffa will be to hire somebody from outside the fighting industry who knows his share of marketing "American style."

A spokesperson for MLK, Germany's leading concert promoter, has confirmed that negotiations are underway to bring Zuffa and the UFC to Germany.

The concert agency, founded by German music magnate Marek Lieberberg in 1970, has successfully organized tours for some of the biggest bands and artists in the world like Bon Jovi, Lenny Kravitz, Metallica, The Police and U2. Each year they also stage "Rock am Ring" and "Rock im Park," two of Europe's biggest and most popular music festivals.

From a fight fan's perspective, Lieberberg, who brought the then-WWF to Germany in 1992 when no other promoter was willing to take the risk to do so, could be an important figure in the promotion of UFC and MMA in Germany.

Lieberberg's excellent connections and knack for marketing helped the pro-wrestling league nearly sell-out some of Germany's biggest venues like the Kölnarena (three times), the 16,000-seat Color Line Arena in Hamburg (once) and the 11,950-seat Max-Schmeling-Halle in Berlin (twice). Those are even more impressive figures when you take into consideration that while WWE and wrestling overall is still fairly big in Germany, the real explosion has been over for almost 10 years.

While Lieberberg's company would be an absolute boon to Zuffa, it won't solve the organization's matchmaking problems when even the UFC's biggest stars are known only to a very small hardcore German fan base.

The stage of development and familiarity of mixed martial arts (or "Free Fighting" as it is often called in Germany) is comparable to the United States circa 1993 or the UK three years ago at this time.

When now-defunct promoter "Martial Arts X-treme" (MAX) tried to run their version of a "TUF" clone last year, the ratings were average at first and abysmal in the end. There was no second season and the promotion went out of business.

While you cannot compare the UFC to any Tom, Dick or Harry promotion, Zuffa still faces the same problems "MAX" or any other German promoter: the lack of a true German superstar.

UFC-signed welterweight Dennis Siver (Pictures) is barely among the Top 10 in his weight class in Europe and even though there are talented young up-and-comers like Daniel Weichel and Martin Zawada, those kids currently have zero marketability and star power.

Though the UFC, which would ideally promote a German card featuring Randy Couture (Pictures) and Mirko "Cro Cop in early February, won't encounter the hostile environment it would face in trying to operate in Japan, running in Germany is the next best thing on the difficulty scale -- but as we've seen, breaking barriers is not something Zuffa has shied away from.
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