NEWS
01/07/2016 14:58 EST | Updated 01/07/2017 00:12 EST

Canadian named top money man at the UFC, sees more room for MMA giant to grow

A Canadian has been named top money man at the UFC.

Nakisa Bidarian took over this week as chief financial officer of the mixed martial arts juggernaut, promoted from executive vice-president of strategy and business ventures.

The 38-year-old from Toronto joined the UFC four years ago after financial jobs in Canada, the U.S., and United Arab Emirates.

"I never envisioned myself ending up with the UFC," Bidarian said with a chuckle Thursday from Las Vegas. "I worked for a lot of large corporations when I was in Abu Dhabi, invested in a lot of large corporations.

"This is probably the smallest place that I've ever had a daily interaction with but by far the most enjoyable, the most dynamic, the most entrepreneurial. It's an absolute pleasure being here."

Drawn by its co-op program, Bidarian earned a degree in financial economics from the University of Waterloo. He spent 3 1/2 years with Toronto-based Accenture before getting his MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

He worked for Citigroup in New York before, in 2007, moving to Dubai and joining Morgan Stanley. He had spent a year in the Emirates as a teenager and "fell in love with the country."

That led to a job with the Mubadala Development Company, the sovereign wealth fund of the government of Abu Dhabi. He spent four years there, responsible for international real estate investments.

"I didn't have any exposure with the UFC but I had a lot of exposure through time with hotels and gaming," he said.

In the wake of an Abu Dhabi-owned entertainment promotion company making a 10 per cent investment in the UFC, he suggested contacting UFC co-owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta about gaming given their casino roots in Las Vegas.

"(I) fell in love with them probably from the first time I met them in terms of the businessmen that they were and the ethics they had and the moral kind of compass that they operated their businesses with," Bidarian said. "So very quickly I said these are the kinds of guys I want to work with if I make the move back to North America.

"Fortunately the feeling was mutual."

He came on board full time in October 2011, working briefly on the casino side before moving over to the UFC.

Bidarian grew up a Leafs, Lakers and then Raptors fan. But he started attending and appreciating fights after the Abu Dhabi investment in the UFC. "I would say today I'm a huge fight fan."

He attends shows in Las Vegas, as well as some internationally depending on whether his business takes him there.

"I love being at the event but I also enjoy watching the events at home because you can be a little bit more kind of free and loose in terms of your emotions as you're watching the fight," he said with a laugh.

He also enjoys working with UFC president Dana White, who combines charisma and bluster.

"He is extremely knowledgeable on the fight business. He is very insightful in what fans want to consume. And I think my favourite thing about Dana is that he's direct and to the point — so you know where he stands, you know what his thought process is. And he's open to suggestions."

The UFC put on 41 shows, including 13 pay-per-view events, in 2015. New venues included the Philippines, Poland, Scotland and South Korea.

Lorenzo Fertitta, the UFC's chairman and CEO, told CNN recently that the UFC generated a record US$600 million in revenue in 2015. Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, bought the failing MMA business in 2001 for $2 million.

"We're the only 360-degree-owned sports entity in the world, where we have full control and flexibility in everything that we do," Bidarian said.

"I think we're unique in that regard and have an opportunity to take advantage of that around the world in a way that other sports entities, predominantly the ones in North America do not, given that we have a fan base (that) is attracted to athletes from various geographies," he added.

Bidarian also believes that the UFC content is "perfectly situated for how the media landscape is evolving, in terms of the digital consumption and in terms of the attention span of the young demos."

UFC fights are short — three five-minute rounds with the exception of championship bouts which can last five rounds — and show well on smaller devices.

"The ratings have been extremely good in the U.S. and growing everywhere else in the world. So we have a lot of upside and a lot of opportunities to continue growing."

Bidarian and his Australian wife are expecting their first child in June.

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press