By Zach Arnold | August 25, 2014
There were lots of interesting stories coming out of UFC’s active weekend in Macau & Tulsa. Talk about two different worlds. There was Michael Bisping doing his best Freddy Krueger impersonation on Cung Le’s face and perhaps putting the guy into retirement. At the Macau event, UFC regulated the whole ball of wax and yanked a judge after the first two fights due to poor performance. Let the hand-wringing commence.
There was the arrest of Jordan Mein’s father, Lee Mein, for sexual battery. UFC barred Lee Mein from being in the building to watch his son fight but Lloyd Irvin was in the corner of James Vick. I’m fully expecting UFC’s political critics to start tagging the sport with the “rape culture” label. And, truthfully, MMA is in a perilous spot on that front right about now.
Then there was Rafael dos Anjos blitzkrieging Ben Henderson and John McCarthy catching hell for his stoppage in that fight. I suspect Jason Herzog probably would have let this fight play out a bit more.
Given these interesting stories, I still find myself asking one over-arching question about what UFC is up to right now and it’s a question that I don’t think the company has done a very good job of answering:
What exactly is UFC’s grand plan into expanding their brand into mainland China?
If there is one thing UFC is brilliant at, it’s corporate sloganeering. World Fucking Domination. Their bravado is unmatched except perhaps with FIFA propaganda material. Ironic given that UFC claims MMA will be as big as soccer in the next 10 years. So why has UFC been strangely silent about their goals & benchmarks for success in the Chinese marketplace?
Zuffa has ran
two three Macau events at The Venetian and ran one Fight Pass show in Singapore. Cung Le headlined two of the Macau shows. UFC has Ultimate Fighter China. And that’s about it. Meanwhile, One FC with Victor Cui is setting the table long-term to expand his footprint in the Asian marketplace as a serious arena player. RUFF is the one active MMA promoter right now on the mainland. There’s the proposed M-1 Challenge event this November in Shanghai. Why hasn’t Zuffa been able to buy their way into the marketplace? A lot of it probably has to do with their corporate ideology and the refusal to change their matchmaking to bend to cultural tastes & sensitivities.
Is the plan simply to wait for others to pave the way and then swoop right in with arena shows? If UFC can’t conquer New York politics, how the hell are they going to conquer Beijing?
I understand why Bob Arum is running fights in Macau with Manny Pacquiao. For Manny, it’s about the taxes. For Arum, it’s about the site fee he can command because Manny and big name boxers can attract huge whales to gamble significant cash on fights. Plus, Top Rank has Ryota Murata. Of all the major combat sports right now, MMA is the least likely to attract the big whales. Luca Fury can generate a living as an online handicapper but the casinos want warm bodies in their buildings to blow cash at the tables & at the sportsbooks. MMA simply isn’t attracting that kind of fan given the demographics. Great TV demographics with 18-to-34 year olds but not-so-great casino spending demos.
It’s hard to put into perspective what is happening with UFC’s grand vision of what to do in Asia. They fired Mark Fischer and have inserted Garry Cook into the equation. One colleague of mine described him as an MMA version of Karl Rove, a kind of guy with a gift for gab & strategy that UFC is counting on to transcend cultural boundaries. The problem is that cultural boundaries are everything when it comes to the combat sports business in Asia. I’m amazed that UFC hasn’t bothered hiring Chinese or Japanese business executives who potential sponsors & power brokers can relate to on business matters. Even WWE has their own president for Japanese operations.
Unlike most, I was not critical of UFC’s initial disclosure about plans to run a reality TV show in Japan that’s based on a different format than Ultimate Fighter. As long as they can partner up with some Japanese promoters and get on network television, anything can happen. But they announced those plans when Mark Fischer was around. He’s gone. We’re one month away from the Saitama Super Arena event which has a bizarre card headlined by an even stranger yet intriguing main event of Mark Hunt vs. Roy Nelson. Things have really cooled off for Dentsu since they inked their deal with UFC a few years ago. UFC achieved what they wanted on the first show. What is their goal now in Japan?
Normally, the UFC is very certain and public about their marketing pronouncements. They know what they want and know what their talking points are. Curiously, you aren’t seeing such bravado right now from the world’s only major MMA promoter. Until they come up with a disciplined, smart, adaptable strategy to address the cultural tastes of the various Asian markets, they’re chasing their own tail. They would be better off focusing all their energy on Australia at this point in time.