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Dublin: 17 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

The former Irish football referee who’s running the show at UFC Dublin

We sat down with UFC director of brand, communications and events David Allen to talk about fight week and his past in the League of Ireland.

A HUGE AMOUNT of planning goes into an event as big as the UFC Fight Night being hosted by Dublin’s O2 Arena this week. With five Irish fighters on Saturday night’s card, fans snapped up tickets in record time for the chance to cheer on the likes of Conor McGregor, Neil Seery and Cathal Pendred. 

Behind the scenes, another Irishman is working tirelessly to ensure it all runs smoothly. David Allen, originally from Dublin but based in London these days, was reunited with long-time colleague Garry Cook last December when he became the UFC’s director of brand, communications and events. 

Allen has also got an interesting past in that he is an ex-League of Ireland referee. We caught up with him this week.  

Conor McGregor and Diego Brandao

Allen stands between UFC Dublin headline fighters Conor McGregor and Diego Brandao.

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

First of all, how did you get into refereeing? 

I wanted to be a footballer growing up. That was my dream until I got told that I wasn’t going to be good enough. It happens to most of us, we get that tap on the shoulder.

So I thought to myself, how am I going to get to the top and how could I get on a field among some of the greatest footballers in the world? I took up refereeing and began in the Phoenix Park with the Dublin District Schoolboys League (DDSL).

From there, I move onto the Leinster Junior League and the amateur leagues and eventually I got a call to be invited into the League of Ireland.

At the time, you would be called in and work as a linesman on a Sunday and on a Saturday you would referee the ‘B’ teams. I did that for a number of years until I was promoted.

What other work were you doing back then? 

From a business point of view, I left the company I was working with and joined up with Adidas in Ireland. I worked with them for a number of years while keeping up my refereeing.

It was very hard going away doing European matches and World Cup qualifiers and that sort of stuff while trying to keep up the day job because refereeing did not pay the mortgage.

Then I moved across to England with Adidas, which meant I had to give up my refereeing career.

Which players do you remember from that time? 

I’m still a big football fan. There were great players in the league at the time – the likes of John Caulfield and Pat Morley, who is still one of my best friends. Hopefully he will be coming up to the fight on Saturday.

When I left Adidas, I took up a position with Nike in the Netherlands and did a number of roles with them before I came on board with the UFC.

Pat Morley

Allen is good friends with Pat Morley and has invited him to Saturday's event.

Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

How did you make the transition from working with sports brands to the UFC?

It has been an interesting journey. I ran their football business, which was something that I loved. Coming into mixed martial arts with the UFC was an opportunity similar to the one I saw when I started running Nike football.

When I began with them, nobody even knew what we were. People used to say to me, ‘Go away, you’re a crazy American basketball brand’.

You look at what Nike is in football now. They’re head-to-head with Adidas and even market leader in some countries around the world.

I see the UFC and mixed martial arts at that stage. We’re a young brand, we’re eight or nine years in existence as the operation is now.

I got the opportunity to work alongside Garry (Cook) again. We’ve worked together for years because I moved to Umbro and was managing that business while Garry was involved with Manchester City. So that’s how we came back together as colleagues.

I think the UFC have an absolutely amazing road that they can take this business to. I think we are becoming mainstream when you look here in Ireland or the UK or the US.

What challenges does the UFC face? 

In other markets like France or Germany in Europe where we have got huge following and participation, we have challenges with how we are broadcast there and run events.

The scope for the UFC is the same as what it was for Nike. And that’s what enthuses me.

That’s why I want to be here. I’ve got a great team of people running the events all this week and there is a great energy from our broadcast partners, from our media partners and everybody is supportive of what we’re doing.

So there’s only one way, and that way is up.

We’re in the middle of fight week right now. What does that involve? 

My role falls into three different places. I look after our brand management, our communications, which is media and digital, and I look after the event itself and everything that goes around it.

I obviously don’t put up the rigging or the lights but work on everything around the event. We had our media and fan day on Wednesday where we had the open workouts and the press conference at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

On Thursrdst we’ve got a very exciting day with a number of our guest fighters. Friday then is a massive day for us with the weigh-ins down at the O2. We put out free tickets and they went in 20 minutes. We’re going to have 4,500 people at the weigh-in. It’s astounding.

There’s a lot of logistics that comes with all of that and our team will manage that.

On Saturday night, there is one more thing happening — the fight — where we will make sure that it is the absolute best event it can be.

Garry Cook with Conor McGregor and Diego Brandao 16/7/2014

Executive vice president and managing director of Europe, Middle East and Africa for the UFC Garry Cook.

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There is a real buzz around Dublin ahead of Saturday night. After how successful the ticket sales went, do you see the UFC returning to Ireland soon? 

What we’re doing now is sitting back and planning what 2015 will look like with the dates that will work for us and make sure that we can come back to those cities who were good to us, like Dublin.

Of course we would like to come back to Dublin but there are a lot of things in our way that we have to work through at this point and time. Is the arena available at the same time and place next year? What will the fight card be like? How can we build on the energy that we’ve created?

I believe that we can do it but we have to work through some of the mechanics of that. It’s not as easy as turning up, opening the doors to the O2 and putting on the event. We’ve also got many cities around the world now who are knocking down the doors of our office.

The economic impact that we have when we come to a city is absolutely huge.

I know you’ve had your issues with Garth Brooks not turning up and there’s €50m gone out of economy but this fight will be broadcast in 178 countries all over the world in 28 languages. You can’t buy that advertising for the country and there are a number of cities across Europe who want us to come.

We definitely want to come back but there are a few mechanics to work through.

Croke Park has been mentioned by some of the fighters as a possible future venue? What are your thoughts on that? 

We ran an outdoor event in Abu Dhabi this year and it was very successful. The thing about running an outdoor event there is that we’re guaranteed the weather. People have asked me about outdoor events in Ireland. There is one reason why this country is so green — it rains and when it rains it rains hard.

If we could put a roof over Croke Park or a roof over the Aviva, we would love to come. There are a lot of mechanics that go with that too.

The O2 have been great partners with this but we could have filled that thing three times over. So if somebody wants to go and build a bigger arena, that’s where we’ll look to go as well.

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