Campbell McLaren is a man on a mission.
The CEO and founder of Combate Americas wants to make mixed-martial arts (MMA) the most popular sport among Latinos in the world, after soccer.
A mastermind behind the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), McLaren has assembled a high-powered team to achieve his goal.
Joe Plumeri, a philanthropist and former CEO of Citibank North America, is Combate’s Chairman of the Board and lead investor. The former Chief Marketing Officer for NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises, Jacqueline Hernandez, joins the effort as company President.
Combate Americas showcases Latino athletes. The sports launched in the United States but has expanded internationally with bouts now transmitted in 22 countries.
In the United States, Hispanic media powerhouse Univision holds Spanish-language rights to the matches, a deal which began in April this year.
The broadcasts have already pulled in high ratings, making Combate Americas arguably the #2 top-rated MMA television property in the U.S., regardless of language. The agreement with Univision includes carriage of the Copa Combate, a one-night, eight-man tournament for a prize of $100,000. The next Copa Combate airs this upcoming December 7th.
In Latin American and Europe, Combate Americas fights are available via television partnerships with TV Azteca in Mexico, ESPN in Latin America, GOL TV in Spain, and RedeTV in Brazil.
Facebook Live brings select online video content to a global audience. And beginning this week, Combate will stream fights with English-language commentary through OTT service DAZN.
McLaren brought together the executives and other team members at the Mission Concepción in San Antonio, Texas. Founded by Spanish friars in 1731, the site houses the oldest unrestored stone church in America.
McLaren, Plumeri and Hernandez individually shared thoughts about the gathering at the almost 300-year-old structure, as well as the path before Combate Americas.
The interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.
A Spanish mission seems like an unlikely place for an MMA company to meet. Why there?
Campbell McLaren: The [Spanish] missions were started by groups of true believers. Their beliefs, faith, and desire pushed them into unknown territory to create a powerful structure that endures today.
I said to my team, ‘I want to guarantee you something that’s rare in life. You get to say you worked on something pivotal, important and that goes into the future. You’re going to be talking about Combate the rest of your lives.’
Jackie Hernandez: It’s an 18th century church, an absolutely beautiful national historic park. We were kicking off our 2018 mission. Joe always says, ‘No mission is impossible for us. Anything is possible.’
What makes Combate Americas different from other MMA properties?
Joe Plumeri: It’s all Hispanic, that’s number one. There is no other company that’s only for one type of person or one type of nationality.
Second, MMA is the context, but Combate is a celebration of Hispanic life. If you take UFC or other companies, they have Hispanic fighters, but the whole thing is not just for Hispanic audiences.
The first show I went to was in Los Angeles. I was excited to go because I’d never been to an MMA fight, but I wanted more to see who showed up.
What most amazed me was the fact that here’s this guy by the name of Campbell McLaren, who has a name as far away from Hispanic as you can get. The fighters are hugging him and thanking him. The people in the fighters’ entourage are hugging him and thanking him. Even the announcers in Spanish were standing up and excited.
This is all about building a company especially for Hispanics. The passion is MMA, but the purpose is to make people feel good about themselves.
Why did Combate Americas begin by focusing on the U.S. Hispanic community?
Campbell McLaren: I am Scottish, as in born there and emigrated to the U.S. when I was seven. Whether you’re from Mexico or Scotland, Ireland, Sicily, there’s a real shared experience. Joe Plumeri gets this. He grew up as part of that American dream, with a grandfather from Sicily. It’s the idea of getting into American society and making a better life for yourself and for your children, using the great strengths of this country.
I want to stay very far from politics, but making America great again? If you ask an immigrant, America is great.
Nobody came here because things were going well at home. My dad was in the Royal Air Force. He was a fighter pilot that was injured. He couldn’t fly, which was always his dream; his other dream was to come to America. We were able to do that.
Coming here as an immigrant – your house smells differently than other Americans. You’re embarrassed by your parents’ accent. You very much want to fit in, but you realize you don’t, you’re different, and it gives you a different viewpoint.
You can understand the expression of the 200 percenters. I am very proud to be American. I am very proud to be Scottish. You see it a lot with our U.S.-based Hispanic fighters. John Castañeda takes a U.S. flag and sews it to a Mexican flag, so it’s the USA on one side and Mexico on the other.
I had a great understanding of the Hispanic experience as an immigrant myself. As I looked around the country, the fight scene and the entertainment business, I saw there was incredible energy in Spanish-language media.
How have you pivoted to a broader audience?
Jackie Hernandez: The Copa Combate is a big deal. I follow Spain. You could follow the USA or Mexico. You’re rooting for a country. If your country loses, you start rooting for the next country. It has that kind of feeling.
There are qualifiers, and then there’s the whole lifestyle programming that we do and the shoulder programming. ‘What will the fighter do with $100,000 purse?’
Last year the Copa happened right after the hurricanes and the earthquakes in Puerto Rico and Mexico. It was sad – but very uplifting – to see these fighters that were going to take the money and build a house for their mothers and try to give back the money to their countries. There’s a big human-interest piece attached to what we’re doing.
The other thing is the fight itself. Hispanics love boxing. Eighty percent of our fights go to the finish. We like to say MMA stands for ‘mucha más acción.’ There’s a lot more action.
What are you doing to reach a more international audience?
Campbell McLaren: We’ve added on another layer, which is the country-versus-country with the Copa Combate — that’s eight countries represented. We want to be the number two sport for Hispanics worldwide because the number one sport is soccer, but I’m not sure if soccer is a sport. It actually might be classified as religion!