–Kenny Rice


I was a small boy yet it is indelibly etched in my memory bank, that roaring sound of a stock car engine drowning out the rhythmic waves. Only two or three cars but the sound thundered like a tropical storm moving in, with just a third -geared mini parade along the golden strands of Daytona Beach, Florida. Pioneering legends of the sport, Tiny Lund, Fireball Roberts and Lee Petty stepping out of the colorfully painted cars to trek through the sand in their boots and fireproof suits looking like some kind of alien invasion with their gleaming white helmets.


They had a sole purpose, to introduce themselves and their sport to all of us vacationers who might want to buy a ticket to the Firecracker 400 July 4th weekend. Tickets were still available.


It was the mid -1960’s and NASCAR was considered the Southern sport, not a blip on the mainstream sports screen. Just a little more than a decade removed from its origin of moonshine runners, seeing who had the fastest cars in dirt track showdowns from the Carolinas, through Georgia and Alabama. Never would anyone North of the Mason-Dixon line watch a bunch of good ol’ boys go round in circles for 500 miles. Never would anyone with a college education ever consider buying a ticket to watch some hick founded cultural event.


But like the tides that have worn down a coastline, stock car racing eroded stereotyping by the late ’70’s and early 80’s becoming a never expected national deal, coveted by sponsors as diverse as laundry detergent and cereal companies. From the backwoods to New York City. From local channels to network TV contracts. No longer a novelty sport with occasional clips on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” NASCAR had rocketed into the stratosphere near the orbits of the NFL, MLB and NBA in popularity and clout.


It was simple, basic Marketing 101—get your brand name to the public. If that meant sitting in a booth for hours signing autographs, walking around a beach or shopping mall shaking hands, so be it. Long before Nike’s famous slogan, those NASCAR boys were just doing it. They didn’t need to fork over all their hard earned dollars to some fancy Madison Avenue big shots to tell them there is power in developing a grass roots fan base.


While common today these “fan fests” a traveling carnival proceeding major sports events with interactive trailers and kiosks and booths to have a first hand experience at your favorite sport, NASCAR was constantly doing that at every stop along their broadening circuit.


No sport since has so strongly grabbed this approach as MMA, specifically the UFC. Not a coincidence their growth has exceeded that of any other sport in the past decade. Since Zuffa swooped in and swooped up the UFC with the perfect pitch man in their president Dana White– gregarious, controversial, smart, a natural attention grabber–the model that NASCAR built has been expounded upon. Fighter interaction with their fans from web chats to up close and personal, one fan would tell another, then another, about chatting if only briefly with a star of the cage. Word spread from the common sense approach. We all like to meet athletes, celebrities and in most cases they are one in the same.


The UFC redefined the template cast by car racing by zooming along the information highway. No sport has built an audience through this new medium faster and better. You are reading this now on the web, one of hundreds of places to get information about MMA. It was via the Internet that MMA was linked from Maine to Oregon with snippets about fighters, upcoming promotions, enough to whet the appetite of those bored with the traditional fare of sports. With the speed of communication, a cyber roots movement sprouted from crude to more polished sites of information.


This phenomena cultivated in the late 1990’s has and continues to be studied in schools as business models for future burgeoning companies. MMA mastered the web in building a following far from the underground any more. With clip and paste taking over from strolls on the beach to get out the message.


The once “human cock fight” now has major companies lining up for their commercial spots faster than fans to get an autograph. From only seeing a fight on the web to a multi million dollar deal national TV deal with Fox, to the first ever weekly national TV show, Inside MMA, the sport has surpassed NASCAR’s heretofore standard for excellence in fan base and corporate sponsored growth.


Car racing and MMA have a common bond, everyone can relate. We all drive cars and even it’s pushing it to 90 on the Interstate, there is a certain rush though never close to actually being at Daytona. And most everyone has had some schoolyard altercation either good or bad that they understand what it feels like to hit or be hit. As a society we love speed and action. We stop to watch a fight and are still fascinated by going so fast so close for so many miles.


The UFC Expo over the weekend in Houston embodied all that is great for fans. From having the opportunity to meet champions and former champions to even ring card divas, they lined up for hours. They went into the virtual world to see if they could remotely come close to the punching power of Bas Rutten. So what if they can’t, it was the chance just to see and feel what it might be like. It is the beauty that is sports; the measuring up against the very best even if those mortal of us know it can’t be done.


From taking a sample sip of a new, improved energy drink, to checking out a new apparatus which will give you the striking surge needed for your next fight that we all know will never happen, the Expo provided fans everything necessary to have their moment of forgetting all those woes from Wall Street to unemployment lines. It was the perfect cathartic venue, a grand hall filled with heroes to admire, a place for buddies to compete on their own skill level; a time warp of perfection to live the moment that all fans want, as they escape into fantasy for a few hours.


The UFC Expo is Marketing 101 to perfection. And anyone who attended in Houston has already been on the Internet chat rooms to spread the word you can’t miss the next one. Bas is so nice in person, Tito Ortiz signed my poster, it was beyond cool to virtually spar for a few seconds, and WOW, has Anderson Silva got a handshake.


It was basically what every fan of every sport wants, to feel the basics of the game, to meet the icons that keep it going. And no one had to get sand in their shoes.

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