Brydon: UFC takes the Wright approach

May 27, 2010, 1:18 PM

Dana White said it was about time the UFC opened an office in Canada.

Actually, he said it was probably overdue.

And while it was no surprise when the organization revealed on Tuesday what had already been reported en masse, the choice of who will head it up certainly was.

But I must say, it was a pleasant one.

While the average sports fan might not know the name Tom Wright, he is a public figure well known to the established sports community. And from the moment the former CFL commissioner stepped to the podium at the Rogers Centre, it was obvious he already gets what the sport of MMA is all about. And what needs to be done to move it and the UFC forward full scale in this country.

As great an entrepreneur and spokesperson for the sport as White is as UFC president, it has become clear that the organization needs a slightly different approach than his aggressive, “guns a blazing” style in order to accomplish its first and foremost goal involving operations in Canada — to open the doors of Ontario to legalized mixed martial arts.

I believe they’ve hired the right person for the role. And it’s quite serendipitous how they got him because Wright said the job was never on his radar.

“Sometimes you find the best people through other people,” said Zuffa chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, who explained that his name came up when they discussed potential candidates with the UFC’s chief marketing officer, Bryan Johnston, who previously worked for Wright at Adidas. “We met, we hit it off perfectly, he had the credentials and it just made sense.”

Indeed Wright has the credentials, even without including his four-year tenure at the CFL helm starting in 2002: President, Spalding Canada (1986-1988); President, Adidas Canada (1988-1999); CEO, Salomon North America (1999-2001); National Chairman, Special Olympics Canada (2003-2006).

Even more apropos than any of those sports-specific positions is his current role (until Friday) as Managing Director at LEVEL5 Strategic Brand Advisors, whose clients are in fields from sports & entertainment to marketing & professional services, and in sectors ranging from retail and manufacturing to media. And we’re not talking small players — the list includes Rogers, the Toronto Blue Jays, Future Shop and VIA Rail, to name a few.

In Wright’s new undertaking as Director of Operations, UFC Canada, that kind of thing is exactly what he will be tasked with on a day-to-day basis — strategically promoting the UFC brand in this country. And he believes the things that were reinforced at LEVEL5 will be invaluable.

“When you’re going to build a global brand, you want to make sure there’s consistency,” Wright said. “We wouldn’t promote a brand here in Canada any differently than in the U.S. or in the U.K. or anywhere else. With MMA there’s tremendous awareness, but there’s not consistent understanding. And that’s part of the educational process … at the governmental level but also with the fans.”

Of course, one can’t help but draw a parallel with his past post as head of a major sports organization. And you could say he had a similar challenge when he was running the nation’s premier football league.

Whereas the CFL, while hugely popular in Canada, often played second fiddle to the NFL, the UFC faces a large population of people — be it average sports fans, diehard boxing fans, or simply fans with overall misconceptions about combat sports — who have not yet been won over by MMA.

Wright sees a similarity between the two leagues that he hopes to leverage in tackling that issue.

“One of the things I found most appealing about the CFL was that the athletes were very, very approachable and accessible, and they lived and worked in the community and I think that same characteristic is true of UFC athletes,” Wright said. “And when you’ve got those kind of committed and genuine individuals who happen to be amazing athletes as well selling their sport, it’s really, really helpful.”

One man with an inside perspective from both angles is former CFL player Glenn Kulka, who also tried his hand at MMA with three pro fights in the past two years.

Though he says his fighting days are behind him, he continues to campaign for MMA in Ontario as he hosts a Saturday radio show on Ottawa’s Team 1200. Kulka said he liked the UFC’s choice to hire Wright, even if he was caught off-guard by it.

“Actually I was quite surprised,” Kulka said. “You wouldn’t think of Tom Wright and MMA in the same sentence.

“But I think it’s a good move. (As CFL commissioner) he got to know people and sponsors and that type inside business of the CFL and I’m pretty sure that’s what the UFC wants to use him for. He’s a personable guy, he’s well known, well respected and he’s going to be able to help them out as far as moving north of the border. It obviously tells you the commitment that the UFC has to move to Canada here.”

From the initial reaction on the political front, however, it seems that it still won’t be easy. The McGuinty government’s stance hasn’t changed on MMA regulation — they’ve got “higher priorities.”

But here’s where the real benefit of having a guy like Wright comes in. While he’s admittedly not overly politically connected, being Canadian — in fact, a Torontonian — and having lived here for 55 of his 57 years and accomplished so much in the sports, business and community sectors, he adds credibility to the cause. He can bridge gaps more easily than an American and a promoter like White.

And Wright is also a better option in this regard than former WWE Canada president Carl DeMarco (whom sources said was interested) because of the stigma, fairly or unfairly, attached to pro wrestling.

Fertitta told me Wright “has a good way about him” and I certainly found that to be true just from five minutes with him one-on-one. With what the UFC is trying to accomplish, it’s tough to argue when Fertitta says he’s the perfect fit.

“He’s the right guy,” Fertitta said, with pun intended. “Hence the name.”

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