By Zach Arnold | September 28, 2011
With the news tonight that UFC will run a separate Las Vegas event on February 26th at the same time as their vaunted vanity Japanese event at Saitama Super Arena, it is clear that some extraordinary political & business messages are being sent by Zuffa to not just fighters but also the fans.
Some of my observations you may agree with, some you probably won’t. I don’t expect you to agree 100% of the way.
1. Avoiding trouble
We know the stories about what happened with UFC legal eagle Jamie Pollack when he was sent to Japan (for relocation no less!) to try to run PRIDE after the asset sale agreement had taken place. Pollack left quickly after there was a hostile environment with the former PRIDE employees (who largely ended up with DREAM, no surprise there). It was so embarrassing and reckless that you had Nobuyuki Sakakibara’s stooges from the wrestling promotion Hustle running angles for upcoming wrestling events out of those same PRIDE offices & at the “Takada dojo.” Within a couple of months of Jamie Pollack arriving in Japan, he was out of there (and for good reason).
When Dana White had that egregiously awful press conference at Roppongi Hills in Tokyo to proclaim a UFC vs. PRIDE Super Bowl, it was a trap. A set-up. He got snookered. It immediately allowed anti-UFC forces in Japan to portray him as the evil money-hungry outsider who was going to destroy their business. Well, the Japanese scene largely imploded on its own but don’t think that lots of people in Japan are reticent in blaming UFC for their troubles. There’s a lot of angry people right now who aren’t making money. Dana White and company immediately put targets on their backs with that Roppongi Hills presser.
One of the most fascinating questions I had going into UFC’s announcement of running Saitama Super Arena is what kind of trouble they were asking for. The only people who can largely afford to pay the expensive front-row seats are yakuza stooges who are a) looking to cause trouble and get into or bet on fights or b) look to work over foreigners and glad-hand politically in order to screw someone over. Anyone who knows the history of Japanese fighting events knows that the rackets want their protection money (often looked upon by promoters as a ‘tax’) and have crashed shows in the past. The whole yakuza scandal that imploded PRIDE was about Seiya Kawamata, a yakuza fixer whose job it was to keep to the mafia out of the front row and backstage hidden away from police.
So, you might naturally suspect (and be correct in assuming) that there’s some people who are looking forward to showing up at the UFC Japan event to cause trouble. By running a show at the same time in Las Vegas, it gives Dana White & Lorenzo Fertitta a reason to stay the hell away from Japan. And for good reason. This is smart. I just feel for Mark Fischer and anyone else Zuffa sends over to try to run the show.
Wildcard thought: If Zuffa cuts a deal with Real Entertainment to have Real manage their Japanese show, that would open up a whole new can of worms as far as associations with ticket brokers, production companies, and the like. Advice to Zuffa: if you’re smart, you won’t send Scott Coker over to the show and have him take pictures while hanging around with characters like Sotaro Shinoda.
2. Minimizing expectations.
By UFC running a show in Las Vegas on the same day as their Japanese event, it will allow them to give the media a cue to bury the importance of the Japanese event and to hype the Vegas show as the A-show. The flip-side of this, of course, is that the Japanese fans are smart customers. Already telling them to show up for a main card at 10 AM at Saitama Super Arena is a joke and now telling them that the Japanese show is essentially a B-level show is basically waving the white flag at this point. Sure, UFC could conceivably book Rampage Jackson vs. Shogun if Shogun loses to Dan Henderson, but that’s not a main event that’s going to draw a huge crowd in Japan. However, it would allow UFC to split the difference and give their American fans a reason to downplay the struggles of the Japanese show. You run Shogun/Rampage in Japan as the Japanese main event but have it air on American PPV as the semi-main event fight for a big Vegas PPV card.
Matt Hume, on Mauro Ranallo’s radio show yesterday, claims that Softbank is supporting UFC’s Saitama event.
3. Going all-in on running weekly shows.
This is a horribly Pyrrhic calculation that Zuffa is making but they are proceeding with their commitment to doing this. There’s a reason every other major sport in the world has off-seasons. Fans need breaks and the product right now does not need diluting. However, Zuffa has so many guys under contract and in order to keep guys from floating away to promoters like Bellator, you have to run a lot of shows. So, UFC had a decision to make — contract the schedule and run less shows in hopes of making them more special or run every week ala WWE and just grind things out. We’ve seen how well (not) it’s worked out for WWE. I give Zuffa credit for going all-in and sticking their necks out on the line but I don’t think it’s a very good move in terms of eliminating the ’specialness’ of their product.
The immediate impact of this decision to run multiple shows in different locations on the same night is the amount of stress it will put on the UFC production teams. They are already overworked and stretched to capacity. The more workload you place on them, the less variety there will be in the way the shows are produced. Just like WWE shows today largely look the same as they did a decade ago, UFC could fall right into that same trap. This opens the door up for mistakes being made.
4. Advancing Vince McMahon’s 1980’s strategy on a global level.
We’ve seen what UFC has done in buying out competition or putting them out of business in North America. Just like Vince McMahon raided the territories for the best wrestlers in the 80s to move them to New York, Zuffa has managed to do the same thing in 2011. Outside of Bellator, which is gasping for media oxygen right now, there really isn’t anyone who can withstand competing against the Zuffa machine.
Vince focused his primary market on the States, just like UFC has. The difference here between the two parties is that Zuffa sees an opportunity to dominate the entire world landscape. Let’s say that the company does aggressively run multiple shows in different countries and does combined PPVs. If they can dominate Brazil, Asia, Australia, and Europe then they will essentially be able to stifle any sort of environment in which a promoter wants to become a major player in their respective country. It’s a very bold and audacious way of thinking but also a very dynamic way of looking at how you want things to play out.
Understand that Vince McMahon wanted to be the world leader in wrestling but he also begrudgingly respected the Mexico & Japanese markets for a long, long time. It was only recently that Vince started to run strong in Mexico and that was helped because of the weakness of CMLL & AAA in terms of television. The WWE events in Japan are the same kind of cookie cutter shows that you see in Thailand, for goodness sakes. Vince always wanted to run the Tokyo Dome by himself and, in the end, he didn’t do it.
The great irony in all of this is that you privately hear rumors of (but not so much publicly) Shane McMahon’s name being tossed around whenever discussion of UFC trying to get into the Chinese marketplace pops up.
You don’t plan on running shows weekly unless you have a larger goal in mind. You don’t run weekly shows just to keep fighters busy and under contract because we’ve seen how many guys get hurt and have to cancel bookings at the last minute. The reason you run multiple shows weekly is to take over the world and to dominate as the major promoter in all big global markets. There’s a much higher chance that this kind of plan fails than it succeeds but we’re about to find out if Zuffa can pull off a feat that no other individual fight promoter has ever been able to accomplish.