I’ve been to the last four UFC Fan Expos as a VIP and regular attendee. I’ve seen the good, the bad, the changes, and evolution of the expo. In addition, I’ve talked to ReedPop employees at the expo, fans, fighters, and security and consider myself very knowledgeable on the subject. I’ve attended five live events, buy a whole bunch of t-shirts, cards, gloves, and other UFC related stuff. I am not a professional writer, just a passionate MMA fan who cares a lot for the sport.
Here we go!
Up close and personal – Very few sports leagues have events like this where fans can meet, get autographs, and take pictures with the athletes. It is one of the few chances where dozens of fighters from around the world are centralized in one location for easy fan access. At past expos, I have met up to 40+ fighters over a two day span.
Athlete Interviews / Panels / HOF – Each expo has a main stage where they do Hall of Fame inductions, various panels, fighter Q&A and MMA personality Q&A. This year, they had the usual HOF induction, Dana White Q&A, Bruce Buffer Q&A, Legends Q&A, a panel on Women’s MMA, and random fighters chit chatting Q&A.
Location / Set up – This was the first year at the Sands Convention Center. The area was massive and seemed bigger than the Mandalay Bay. There were enormous TVs in the UFC Theater and big screens all throughout the expo. They also had huge UFC signs and posters all over. The drawback this year was the fighter meet and greet areas. Each fighter had a raised platform which made it really formal and not fan friendly. At past expos, it was more casual and each fighter had a high table to meet fans and sign autographs. The platforms made it so that fans had to walk all the way around area, which didn’t make sense for foot traffic. Additionally, the lighting inside the convention was really dark. I believe they wanted to give it a nightclub type feel, but it made taking pictures difficult. Lastly, because of the lack of exhibitors, there was also too much open room and empty convention space. The space didn’t have a good flow.
Organization – Some parts of the expo were well organized but others weren’t. The people at the front desk in the main lobby had no clue what was going on. I went on Thursday to pick up my VIP badge, and the person at the front desk said, “Don’t ask me, I’m not sure what’s going on.” I said you have a UFC Staff shirt on. She just pointed me to someone else. I can’t imagine what is was like on Friday when 1000s of people showed up for Day 1. At the autograph lines, the staff was organized, but too stern. Staff members were scolding people for not standing close enough to each other in line or wanting to take a selfie with the fighter. It didn’t create a good fan experience especially when people were waiting over 2 hours. Another issue was that autograph lines were being cut off prematurely. For example, a fighter was signing between 9:30 am and 11:00 am, and the staff would cut off the line at 100 people. The fighter would finish signing autographs in an hour and then leave. That person could have easily signed for 30 more people. On the other hand, this guarantees that everyone in line gets an autograph/picture, which doesn’t happen with exhibitor booths.
Technology – The expo has incorporated a lot of new technology into the fan experience. The International Fight Week App was introduced this year and allowed people to access information through their smart phone or tablet. This was a great utilization of technology. But it was the only way to get schedules and fighter appearance times. A lot of fans don’t have smart phones or have small screens. The app is a battery hog and my phone died by the afternoon. Another so-so element was the camera stand at each autograph station. I liked having the professional picture taken at each fighter signing. It sped things up in most cases. But it took the staff a while to get the hang of it, and I’ve heard of some glitches that the scanner wouldn’t read badges and people didn’t get their picture emailed right away.
Amateur Events – I would estimate that this appeals to less than 25% of the UFC fan expo attendees. This includes the various tournaments, crossfit and fitness events. I found them distracting because panels were happening, people waiting in line for autographs, and crowds of people walking around. It’s good exposure for the sports, but I spent five minutes watching. My main goals were to meet fighters, get autographs, and buy t-shirts.
Communication – This was the worst part of the expo. The schedule of events, fighter appearance times, and notifications all came out really late. Most items were communicated a few days before the event. This created a poor fan experience considering most people need to book flights / hotels / shows in advanced. Numerous people were asking questions on the UFC Fan Expo Facebook page, but many questions weren’t answered. I called the hotline at 888-464-9950 with a few questions. They were extremely nice, but also unsure of a lot of things. In the past, the activities were posted a two to three weeks in advanced to give fans an idea of what to expect.
Lack of exhibitors – All the previous expos prior to 2015 had over 150 exhibitors selling clothing, gear, equipment, services, supplements, artwork, and a lot of miscellaneous. This year had around 25 exhibitors including UFC Fight Pass, the UFC Store, and Memorabilia area. I remember at past expos, you could wander around and get lost with so many things to see. This year, I saw everything in about 10 minutes. There was little variety, and it did not showcase the growth and variety of MMA. I know this is the “UFC” Fan Expo and not the “MMA” Fan Expo. Moreover, I read stories and spoke with other exhibitors that this was due to the UFC only wanting to showcase their preferred sponsors. Reebok was to be the only clothing company, which meant closing the door to Torque, Habayusa, Headrush, Venum, etc. Musclepharm was to the be sole supplement company.
Lack of fighters – This expo had approximately 30 active UFC fighters and 8 legends / HOFers. UFC’s website lists 597 active fighters and there’s probably another 1000 former UFC fighters. That is a paltry 5% of the current company roster. These expos are the perfect opportunity to introduce up and comers to the fans or allow fans to meet retired fighters like Sean Sherk, Chris Leben, Shane Carwin, etc. It was amazing to see that there were more fighters hanging out at the MGM casino than in the expo. To compensate for the loss of exhibitor sponsored fighters, the UFC should have made up for this by having more fighters for fans. I’m pretty sure fighters would have loved to make a little extra cash for signing a few autographs. Numerous fighters live and train in Las Vegas as well.
Bottlenecks and long lines – The autograph lines were the longest I’ve ever seen in my four years. That is to be expected of the champs, top tier fighters, or popular fighters, but the line to meet Tyron Woodley was over 2 hours. I know because I waited in his line, and they misplaced his 8×10 picture card. There was also mass confusion about which line to wait in because of the crowds.
Fighter punctuality – Given that the fighters are only scheduled for 90 minutes, the fighters have to show up on time or else there will be a lot of disappointed fans. Many of the fighters showed up 15 to 20 minutes late. Some fighters showed up early or on time or stayed late. Example was on Day 1, Vitor Belfort was scheduled to show up from 9:30 to 11:00. He showed up at 9:50 and it took the staff 5 minutes to figure out the camera and laptop. Once he finished chatting with the security and ReedPOP staff, he started signing at 10:05. The one bright spot was a handful of fighters walking around signing autographs and taking pictures. I met Forrest Griffin randomly at the UFC Fight Pass booth.
Lack of printed program and autograph schedule – This year was the first year there were no printed schedules and programs. They make great souvenirs and I still have mine for the past expos. They also give people something to look at while waiting. I’m not sure if this was done to save trees or money, but please bring back the program.
VIP Experience – I purchased the VIP ticket which allowed for early entry. In the past, VIPers received a duffel bag, t-shirt, poster, a lot of freebies, and samples. This year, it was only a bland t-shirt and poster. I felt that we were taken advantage and I did not feel like a VIP.
Unfortunately, this was the worst experience at the UFC Fan Expo. Unless fans were lucky or wealthy enough to purchase the Ultimate VIP, attendees probably didn’t have a great experience and only met five or six fighters at the most. The UFC failed to welcome its new fans to the sport and failed to satisfy its regular fans. My hope is that the UFC and ReedPOP will improve from this year to make it an amazing fan experience in 2016.