Photo: GLORY Sports International

Marshall Zelaznik, the new GLORY CEO, has been on the job for just over two weeks now, and he’s currently on a fact-finding mission. He’s getting himself familiarized with the daily operations of the world’s leading kickboxing promotion while simultaneously getting up to speed on its almost six-year history. It’s a tall task, and he sure hasn’t been sleeping much, but it’s one he feels is imperative in order to ensure success.

“This is the kind of business where it’s very important to know what the legacy is and why decisions were made,” Zelaznik told MMAPlus recently via phone call while in New York. “I don’t want to come in and jump to conclusions and then make similar mistakes that may have been made before, or have opinions that aren’t based on facts. So I’m really in this learning phase. I’m making some observations. And then trying to figure out once I make these observations how it is that we are going to progress and try and grow the business and the brand. I have this nice long runway to make sure that we get everything that we need to get identified and then we can start executing the business.”

Zelaznik, the fourth CEO in GLORY’s history, recently served as Global Head of Business Development and Content at Major League Gaming (MLG), where he helped grow the distribution of Activision Blizzard‘s eSports properties. He was part of the team that launched the Overwatch League, the first city-based global eSports league, and he also helped secure a deal with Twitch as the league’s exclusive distribution partner.

The new GLORY CEO made his first foray in combat sports while serving as the executive vice president and chief content officer with the UFC from 2006-2016, before being let go once WME purchased the promotion and took over operations. Under his decade-long tenure, the UFC expanded into several new markets, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Australia, UAE-Abu Dhabi, Brazil and Japan. In addition to that, the UFC’s digital streaming service UFC Fight Pass (home for GLORY’s Superfight Series) was launched under Zelaznik’s leadership.

Kickboxing is still very far behind MMA in terms of popularity, especially in the U.S., but GLORY has made substantial growth within the last two years, expanding to 14 events in 2017 for its biggest year yet. So how can Zelaznik implement some of his knowledge from working with the UFC and Activision Blizzard into his new role as GLORY CEO and help the promotion continue to grow?

“My learning of the last year plus with Activision Blizzard, and MLG  and Overwatch League, is that these digital outlets are going to be really important parts of our strategy,” said Zelaznik, who served as vice president of pay-per-view distributor iN DEMAND prior to working for the UFC. “When you have a hardcore fanbase and they’re young, they are not sitting at home surfing through a dial on the television like I used to. They are not going to stumble across it there. A lot of the relationships that I built while at the UFC and while with Activision Blizzard are going to be really helpful to help us engage and grow our fan base.

“It’s a totally different world, as I said before, from where we were back 12 years ago trying to grow the UFC. I feel like I’m in a really unique position having seen and been a part of some of the eSport growth and part of laying the tracks, if you will, of some of the success of some of our product. That is going to really help our decision making here so we can grow GLORY to the places where we think it belongs.”

Since beginning his learning phase on the promotion, Zelaznik says GLORY already has “really good capabilities” as far as running and marketing events. What he wants to do is really make it a priority to identify key markets where GLORY can have the biggest impact in growing fans and generating revenue. Once those markets are identified, he says, then he and the GLORY team can get a sense of how the promotion is positioned there, what the perception is from fans and media parters, and how they can figure out strategies and tactics to expand growth in those markets. “Local heroes become very relevant in key markets,” he says. So, one of the those strategies will be identifying those and then deciding how to attribute them in key markets where they are from.

“If I just were to apply my experience from the UFC, the one thing I’ll be keenly focused on is I will make sure we drive individual markets with individual local strategies to become more meaningful, engage our fans, and ultimately drive more revenue with those markets,” said Zelaznik. “That’s going to be a lot of my focus early on.”

GLORY’s previous CEO, Jon J. Franklin, who took over during the promotion’s darkest days in 2014 when things were looking quite bleak during a five-month layover between GLORY 17 and GLORY 18, has done an excellent job with setting up several key markets for the promotion, including Chicago, where the promotion is heading next for GLORY 50 on February 16, its fifth trip to the Windy City.

A unique part of Zelanik coming on as the new CEO for GLORY, is that Franklin, who was a key factor in landing GLORY’s television deal with ESPN in November 2015, will continue working for the promotion. He will now move into a new role as Chief Development Officer, with a focus on the Americas.

“The good news is I knew Jon,” Zelaznik said. “I met him a few years ago when we did the Fight Pass deal. He has a great reputation. He’s a super loyal guy and hardworking. And when this transition was happening he opened himself up to me to help me get this information and embark on this education of Marshall as it were. So, yeah, I was just in Denver. I’m in New York now. I spent a couple of days there with the team and with Jon and he and I speak every day. He’s going to be invaluable to the future growth of the company, and we need his sort of experience and horsepower to make things happen.”

Zelaznik elaborated on how he and Franklin have been working together thus far since he’s joined the promotion.

“One of the things as part of this education, I’m trying to figure where all the resources are,” said Zelaznik. “In the short run there is not going to be a lot of change operationally. I need Jon’s help. We are still operating a business and I wouldn’t want to take the reigns and again, mess anything up. I think in the short run you will see Jon really helping with the operational keys, continuing to vet business opportunities. And then he and I over the next 30 or 60 days will start to drill down on his role.

“But as a development guy, the expectation will be that he will help grow the business in the U.S. in terms of whether it’s sponsorship or media relationships, our event planning. He will end up playing a role even globally with me in some of our media relationships. He’s got a really strong background there and he’s one of the leaders in the company here when it comes to revenue opportunities. I’m going to need his horsepower, again, to help me with that.”

“I’m excited to focus on some of the things I do best,” Franklin told MMAPlus. “With that in mind, the title of Chief Development Officer is really apropos. I’ll be working on finding sponsors, working on new projects with investors, and continuing to bring the brand the power that it needs to take it to the next level.”

“I think that Marshall will be vital in taking GLORY to the next level,” Franklin continued. “He was at UFC, and not just at UFC, but part of that promotion as it grew from where they were as a niche sport to where they became a dominant mainstream sport. Our goal is to follow that same path with GLORY and I think Marshall can help us do that. It’s strength to strength. He’s got strengths and I’ve got strengths and I think together we are going to be a formidable team.”

Advantages and Challenges

One of the biggest advantages GLORY has, Zelaznik says, is that the promotion is the “lead dog” of kickboxing and the “clear market leader.” Another, he says, is unlike the UFC, who had to constantly explain the aspects of ground fighting in the early days, GLORY doesn’t have to work too hard on educating fans on the promotion’s style of fighting.

“Those issues don’t exist here,” he said. “So, in markets like in Western Europe, where the UFC had to work hard to educate, we don’t have to do that here. There is a natural tendency and a leaning and a favoritism toward this sort of stand up combat. So I think that is good.”

As far as challenges go, Zelaznik mentioned the drastic difference in how fans currently consume content today versus back when he began at the UFC. Back then, a big TV deal would help a promotion “organically grow,” but in today’s game with so many other digital platforms it’s simply not enough.

“It’s a much more diverse eco system now in terms of how people consume content,” Zelaznik explained. “So we are going to have to be pretty creative and nimble in terms of how we attract an audience to grow the audience. We think we have really high-level production. We have clearly the best fighters in the category. So, now we just have to get them on display to fight fans be it boxing, MMA, wrestling, or whatever, and then to sports fans generally. That’s going to be the challenge and that is a little bit different than what the UFC was say 12 years ago where you could just secure that big, broad megaphone partner.

Some of the ways to do that, he added: “I think in order to be successful we have to be on every strata of distribution. That’s everything from OTT to having recurring serial content, unscripted content, highlights, and everything from a social channel to any of the digital platforms who are investing heavily in content. We have a great global product that we know will translate on a global level, and I know the aspirations of a lot of the digital global platforms out there, and I think we have a product that will make sense for them. And we will work with those kinds of partners to make sure we are on that strata of distribution for sure.”

The media side of things is Zelaznick’s “meat and potatoes,” he says. And based on his background and what he’s accomplished with the UFC and Activision Blizzard, it comes as no surprise to hear him say, “that’s where I’m going to initially lean to try and help drive our revenue forward and drive our touch points with the fans.”

Building Stars, Building Fans, Building the Brand

GLORY has done well for the most part internationally, and the promotion has done a great job with distribution as it is broadcast in 170 territories worldwide, including a major deal with Netherlands TV station Ziggo Sport. Markets like the Netherlands do very well due to kickboxing being hugely popular, and having homegrown stars like heavyweight champion Rico Verhoeven and former welterweight champion Nieky Holzken headlining cards assuredly packs arenas and sometimes sell them out. When watching a GLORY card take place in Rotterdam or Amsterdam, the vibe can be electric.

But in the U.S. not so much.

There have certainly been some great fights in the States, and great events too, but packing The Theater at MSG, which holds 5,000 people, is a far cry from packing Ahoy Rotterdam, which holds 15,000.

And there is also the issue of lack of exposure and promotion in the U.S too that has often made it an uphill climb for GLORY.

The GLORY numbered cards are broadcast on ESPN3, the network’s streaming service, and occasionally show live on ESPN2, while usually being replayed on the channel at a later date. The lack of live airtime on ESPN2 is mostly due to conflicts with college football and other sports. The Superfight Series cards are shown on UFC Fight Pass. The latter does a solid job promoting upcoming cards. But the former does not. ESPN has had GLORY fighters on Sportscenter once, and some knockouts have occasionally made the Sportscenter Top 10 list. But beyond that, exposure across ESPN platforms is severely lacking and GLORY is missing out on getting their product out to more eyeballs because of it.

“I don’t doubt that that’s true,” Zelaznik said.  “I want to definitely find out what’s happening there. I’ve done a lot of media deals and some partners really get in behind and push with you, and some partners take the content and air it. We are looking for and we will push our partners to be the kind of partners that you describe, who actually bring more of their resources together than just their shelf space, that they actually get behind us and help us promote.”

And it’s not just talent, GLORY has plenty of it with some of the best kickboxers on the planet. And it’s not just getting GLORY out in front of an audience or on television, they’ve done that with fight cards broadcast on ESPN2/ESPN3, Spike TV (2013-2015), and CBS Sports Network prior to that. Ultimately, it’s getting combat sports fans to care. Stories have to be told, and narratives must build so that fans become invested.

So does Zelaznik think promoting some of the GLORY roster properly will do the trick in the U.S.?

“Well, I’m reluctant to say properly because I don’t have the best feel as to what’s come before,” he said cautiously. “I do know that is the trick to this game is to get people to care about the talent. And there are tried-and-true methods of telling stories and trying to create connectivity with fans and fighters. That will be a priority in a lot in a lot of markets not just the U.S. We have to get people to care about the fighters and the fights.

“It was always drilled into us in the UFC: we are promoters first and we have to promote. The UFC became a juggernaut in terms of its positioning in the sports media world. At its core we were really just trying to promote fights, fighters, events. The basics, the meat and potatoes of what it takes to drive a fight promotion are things we will make sure we are doing to try and get the audience to care.”

Building stars and promoting fighters is always imperative, but so too is building the overall brand. Think of the UFC. Those three initials are enough for fans to tune in or buy a ticket despite who may be on the card. That’s because the UFC built those three initials into becoming the global leader of MMA. GLORY is unequivocally the global leader in kickboxing, and while not on the level of the UFC, there are fans that are tuning in just because it’s GLORY.

Zelaznik believes that is something the promotion can capitalize on going forward.

“We were selling the brand: the UFC,” he said. “And it didn’t matter who was fighting in the early days, you knew you were going to get a really great product because it was the UFC. GLORY has that moment now where people that are fans, are fans of GLORY. And the way you become even more ingrained with the brand is by delivering even more great fights and making sure people know the fighters. So, that’s our job. That’s literally our job is to make people care about the fighters and then come in test, sample, and become GLORY fans.”

Building Relationships

A big part of pushing the brand and building up the fighters will rely heavily on Zelaznik’s relationship with talent operations.

“They are the magicians who make this go,” he said. “No different than the way Joe Silva, Sean Shelby and Dana White would match fights and build cards. Zelaznik was, obviously, privy to how the UFC team did things, and said he’s already had a good first meeting with the GLORY talent ops team upon his first trip to Holland as the new GLORY CEO.

“I’ve already been with Cor Hemmers and Remon Dalder back in Amsterdam,” said Zelaznik. “We had some really great meetings. I think I have a good feel for the kind of the things we should be trying to do. They seemed receptive to my point of view. It’s not dissimilar to them. We are all committed to making sure we have the best fighters and the best fights. Now we just have to do a job of promoting that so people know and that they don’t have any doubts.”

As for the fighters, GLORY’s new leading man said he hasn’t met with any of them just yet. He says he’s currently getting “boned up” on who everyone is while learning the fight history of the promotion, and he’s looking forward to “connecting with the fighters” and meeting some of the roster at GLORY 50 later this month.

“We are going to really put an emphasis on making sure the fighters know that they are valued, and that there is a platform for them here and that we want every one of the world’s best standup fighters to come to GLORY and that’s what we are going to invest in.”

Zelaznik, who has traveled to Holland, Denver and New York so far, has a trip to Asia lined up next. He said he has the full support of GLORY’s board of directors to continue with his current approach, which is something that was negotiated beforehand. “That’s what I asked for in the recruiting process. And they are giving me that time. I’m thankful for it. I think it’s going to pay dividends.”

A Lesson From Dana White

Zelaznik assuredly learned quite a bit from working alongside Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta during his decade at the UFC. Is there one particular lesson that he learned during that time that still applies today?

“I think it’s just having the passion,” he said. “You are going to hit speed bumps and you are going to have failures. You’ve got to at least have the commitment and passion to overcome all of that. Dana and Lorenzo have always exposed their passion for what it was we were building there and that’s contagious. And you want to help people that are passionate about something.

“So, I think I want to make sure that everyone in the company has that same passion. This isn’t going to be a wave of a wand and everything is going to change. We are going to be doing hard work and making hard decisions and we will have some failures along the way. But I think it’s just staying true to your passion and commitment is the big learning.”

Zelaznik won’t just be assigning tasks to others once he gets fully entrenched as GLORY CEO, he says. He likes to roll up the sleeves and lead by example and work amongst the staff. “I’m a get-in-the-weeds guy too,” he says. “I will be shoulder to shoulder with the team trying to make things happen.”

“I don’t have an ego with this stuff,” he continued. “For sure, I look to build talent and let that talent run. I’ve learned that there is a 100 ways to get to one result. Everyone might not take the same steps, but as long as you get to the result that is important. But I lead a lot by example. I will be working side by side with everyone.”

There won’t be any bold predictions from GLORY’s new CEO. It’s quite evident he’s from the Thomas Edison line of thinking. As the famous quote says: “There is no substitute for hard work.” GLORY has a lot of work to do, and he’s ready to get to work. And he’s relying on his work ethic and wealth of experience to seize new opportunities for GLORY and help take it to newfound heights.

“I’ve learned a lot that there is no messiah in this business that is going to come in and all of a sudden give you all of the tools and give you the magic that is out there with some fairy dust and it just all changes. It just takes focus, strategy, tactics to make things happen, and good hard working people to drive a business. It just doesn’t happen because there is a right turn when there should’ve been a left turn. That’s just not how it works. And so, I think with my experience I have at least seen a lot of the issues that may come and keep us out of some trouble and hopefully I can take advantage of opportunities that may not have been there before.”