Reporting from Las Vegas — When he bought the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Lorenzo Fertitta was sold not only on the organization's growth potential in producing compelling fights, but also on his notion that fans deserved more from major sports' ownership.
In giving his UFC keynote speech to a crowd among the nearly 60,000 who piled into the UFC Fan Expo at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on Saturday, Fertitta detailed his latest steps in satisfying the masses.
"There won't be a more interactive sport on television," Fertitta said.
His plans include a recent union with Internet-to-television device Roku that will ultimately allow fans to watch live pay-per-view fights such as Saturday's UFC 114 battle between Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Rashad Evans while accessing key statistics, chatting with friends on Twitter and Facebook and being able to shop for such merchandise as the T-shirt that a main-event fighter wore for his walk to the ring.
Fertitta also promised to hold cards in Arizona (where Sen. John McCain once dismissed mixed martial arts as "human cockfighting") and China by the end of 2011, while expanding operations in MMA-crazy Canada. He also reiterated his interest in signing Russian star heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko once his contract with smaller rival organization Strikeforce expires.
"I want to see Fedor fight guys like [UFC heavyweight champion] Brock Lesnar and [challengers] Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez," Fertitta said. "I want to know, is [Fedor] that good? We will do what we can when and if Fedor becomes a free agent. If he decides to fight the best, the UFC will be here for him."
The resounding message delivered by the massive crowd that descended on the UFC Fan Expo and then attended Saturday night's sold-out pay-per-view fight card across the Strip at the MGM Grand Garden Arena: Fertitta's once-small investment in cage-fighting has paid tremendous dividends.
He said Saturday in his address to fans that UFC ranks second to the NBA in Facebook fans among America's biggest pro sports organizations, with more followers than the NFL.
"It's easier for us to do things than it is in a league office, where they have to balance 32 teams' opinions," Fertitta told The Times. "I make a decision, and it gets done. We're nimble and quick.
"It's like when I was in China [opening an office in Beijing] and asked why the NBA hasn't been there. It's not as easy for them as it is for me to just say, 'We're going there.' "
The youthful audience that relies on the Internet and craves MMA action is flocking.
"These guys are progressive, they love the technology and love putting their product in front of as many eyeballs as they can," said Roku spokesman Brian Jaquet, whose company's product also is being used by Netflix, Amazon and Major League Baseball. "They realize to more and more people the Internet is becoming the most important thing in the household."
Fertitta also showed his dedication to old-school sincerity Saturday, taking about 30 fans' questions, signing dozens of autographs for the expo crowd and pulling out two premium tickets from the back pocket of his jeans to give to Kurt Clark, a Marine sergeant who ventured from Bend, Ore., with his wife to attend the convention.
Fertitta said he would consider allowing UFC fans to vote on his website to select a future main event.
"We got involved in this in the first place to make sports more fan-friendly," Fertitta told his audience after admiring a fan's keepsake, a miniature piece of UFC ring canvas that had the autographs of about 40 UFC fighters at the expo. "We brought energy, with music pumping, to make the fights more entertaining for the fans. Our fighters are accessible.
"You still have to have a great product, but this is amazing to see."