Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
So after Wednesday, after UFC was dealt a hand of lemons the day before when the top two matches at UFC 153 fell apart within hours of each other, and came out of it with lemonade, I woke up to some surprising news.
After being blamed by many for his inability to save UFC 151, when he not only saved UFC 153, but made it more attractive to the majority of his consumers, Dana White was wrong again.
I'm not exactly sure what he was wrong about. Sure, if you asked me the 100 fights I would most be looking forward to seeing this year, Anderson Silva vs. Stephan Bonnar wouldn't be in the top 20.
And I was genuinely looking forward to Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar, the previous main event, more than all but two fights for the rest of this year. To me, it had significance, because it means something, and may even be the most important fight, in determining who the best lighter weight fighter in the sport is. But there's another thing more important, that a lot of hardcore fans who would agree with these views are missing. If UFC markets to us, they would be playing in 2,000-seat casino halls, selling almost no tickets to the public, airing on ESPN2 with a $40,000 budget for the entire show, and nobody would know who the fighters are, except people like us.
Years ago, a UFC marketer was telling me about a study they had done to trying and find out who and what their audience was. What they found out was that 90 percent of their audience viewed MMA as a night of entertainment. Nothing more. They watched the show to have a social night out to have fun with their friends. Very few cared about won-loss records. Even fewer knew what anyone's win-loss record was. Sure, titles and the chase of titles are important, as they should be. Fighters need personality and fights need stories, or else nobody will care about them.
The UFC as a product was dying financially not that many years ago, as did one MMA promotion after another during that era. It was saved on the back of a reality show. Its success was built on the aura of Chuck Liddell as a knockout artist that survived until he was the one regularly being knocked out. It was built on Randy Couture, whose epic pay-per-view win over Tim Sylvia in the most emotional fight in UFC history would have been decried by reporters today given that Couture was old, too small, and coming off a knockout loss in a lower weight division and it "made no sense" that he was even getting a title shot. Forget that it ended up being one of the most memorable fights in company history, and that the day the fight was announced, ticket sales, tepid at the time, skyrocketed and it's still the most people that have ever attended a UFC event in the United States. It was built on bringing Royce Gracie out of retirement and making a great fighter with no box office appeal named Matt Hughes into a superstar by thrashing him, which led to creating the sport's biggest star, Georges St-Pierre, when he beat Hughes twice.
It was built on making Tito Ortiz into at one time the biggest drawing card in the sport and setting PPV and television ratings records against an aging and overmatched Ken Shamrock, fights that many reporters back then decried and said how "nobody wants to see that" right before both fights set records.
And, with all the money made from those shows in late 2006, they were able to sign Mirko Cro Cop and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, buy Pride, and become the No. 1 promotion in the world. That's what this company was built on. That's what captures the interest of the most people. Big names fighting each other with good stories behind them.
Yeah, we figured Couture was too small and too old (and were wrong), Gracie had no chance (were right) and Shamrock was long past his prime (right again). The audience at home ate those fights up, and at the time, UFC really was the fastest growing sports organization in the world.
People forget that, and have some fantasy idea of what UFC was built on, what it was, what it is, and what they think it should be. And the funny thing is, there is a company that fulfills those dreams and fantasies. It's called Bellator. Title shots are earned not given. They've got exactly one match that people really want to see, Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez. Because of their strict matchmaking bylaws, you can't get a title shot without winning three fights in three or so months in a grueling tournament, it's unlikely to ever happen. What could be more credible then rules that keep people from seeing the only fight they care about? And this may result in Alvarez leaving the company. And I'll be watching Bellator every Friday night starting in a few weeks. I don't want to say I'll be alone, because about 150,000 to 200,000 of you will be joining me. But none of my friends who will watch only when the big four money players (Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre or Chael Sonnen) are on will be. And that's the key.
A professional sport can't market to the people who live and die with the sport, because very few ever will. They don't have the time. For most people, sport is a fun diversion from real life, not their real life.
Over the course of this year, UFC has, due to injuries, often ended up with weaker shows then they started out with. UFC 148 at first looked to be the closest thing to UFC 100. But it wound up robbing Peter to pay Paul. They moved Rich Franklin to UFC 147 to save that show when Vitor Belfort got hurt. They moved Urijah Faber and Michael Bisping (who later got hurt anyway) away from the show to save UFC 149 when Aldo got hurt. People who bought tickets to UFC 148 paid the highest scaled prices in company history. They still got the Anderson Silva vs. Sonnen main event, the biggest fight of the year. But they did not get a UFC 100-level deep card as many paid big money to see. I can understand why those fans would be upset, and there is at least some bitterness out of it, and even more out of UFC 149 as well, although that show was decimated by injuries, and ended up a major disappointment as far as action.
Here's what they did this week. There were 10,000 Brazilians who had purchased high-priced tickets to see Jose Aldo vs. Erik Koch and Rampage Jackson vs. Glover Texeira are instead, for the same price, getting Anderson Silva, Brazil's biggest star coming off his highest profile career win, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Rio de Janeiro's local all-time fighting legend. No, they aren't getting a featherweight title fight, but people buy tickets for star power and in Brazil, they got an upgrade of major proportions without having to pay extra for tickets because the company in this case did a great job of revamping the show.
In the U.S., the fact is, nobody has ordered the pay-per-view yet, so nobody bought the show expecting one thing and is getting another. So nobody has been hurt. For all the complaints, far more people are going to be interested in this show, with Anderson Silva fighting Bonnar, than the original main event. The company in this case was thrown for a loop once with Koch being injured and they replaced him with Edgar, making it a far more attractive fight in every way. Then they lost Aldo vs. Edgar, and are getting Silva. Silva doesn't always draw big, but has at times. Aldo and Edgar have never drawn big. Even if you think Aldo and Edgar is better, and I agree with you, you have the choice to not buy the show if it's not worth it in your eyes.
But for the masses, this is a much more attractive show. When people throw around words like "relevant fight," I get it, because I sort of think the same way. But that's also the snob response who have lost touch with the audience that you need to have to be a viable professional sport.
Relevant to who? People who think UFC should revolve around what they want and forget about what most fans want? There's a simple rule of pay-per-view. A fight is pay-per-view worthy if people will buy it. Is it a mismatch on paper? Yep. It's also a late replacement fight with far more appeal than the original fight, and even more appeal then the first replacement fight. Once you lose your top two fights, the goal should be delivering a new lineup that is at least close to as attractive as the original. In this case, they got one more attractive.
They know Anderson Silva. They know Stephan Bonnar. Erik Koch may be higher on somebody's mythical ratings, but the 95 percent of the audience that has never heard of him will be a whole lot less likely to pluck down their $45 to $55 to see a guy they don't know. In the real world, that's the definition of irrelevant. Frankie Edgar has been awesome to watch. He's beaten guys people thought were better, beaten guys who were bigger, and came back from the brink of destruction twice to retain his title. In reality, he today should be lightweight champion.
You may think it's not fair that more people won't buy a "closer on paper" fight. You're right. The fight business is inherently not very fair.
Me, I've watched this sport for nearly two decades, and seen one company after another go out of business because they didn't understand this is business. In 2020, I'd rather be able to tune in and see UFC be bigger than ever because they were open-minded enough to appeal to the large audience.
It's more appealing than the alternative.
You know, when there used to be this cool product called UFC that canceled so many shows because guys kept getting hurt, that they couldn't make perfect matches on short notice, went deep in the red, lost the confidence of their sponsors and TV partners, numbers fell, fighters pay fell, and the casual audience lost interest because they were too busy marketing to such a tiny slice of their audience that they missed the big picture.
Some people may be happy if they get the biggest tombstone in the cemetery next to EFC, IFL, Pride, Sengoku, the original Strikeforce, and everyone else. This isn't the NFL and Major League Baseball, propped up by a league and tradition.
This is a secondary combat sport. And if it's not run first and foremost as a business, being able to market interesting fights with genuine stars and not pretend stars, there's only one thing for sure. In the long run, it won't be in business.
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