By Zach Arnold | November 25, 2014
I’ve been absent. Maybe you noticed. Friends (and enemies) did. Perhaps some of you didn’t. Good for you. Sometimes, real life beckons and you have to deal with issues outside of the MMA bubble. That’s where I’ve been the last 45 days.
While I’ve paid attention to everything that has happened in the industry and stayed (somewhat) in the loop, the recent absence has kind of forced me to step out of the information bubble and look at the MMA scene from a distance. What I see is not very encouraging for the sport’s long-term health unless dramatic changes are made by UFC.
The UFC may be making solid cash, but you don’t lose 40% of your EBITDA without some major problems. Cancellations & injuries helped dig the hole but there is a much larger issue at play here. The UFC has done its fighters and itself a major disservice with the brand-first approach. There are simply too many television & internet fights and too much of a “random guy A vs. random guy B” vibe. Nothing is special any longer. This vibe discounts all of the hard work & sacrifices made by so many who are chasing a dream that only the top 2% in the sport can attain. The pool of cash is shrinking unless you are a big name or made yourself into a big name outside of the sport (see: Brock Lesnar). I’m extremely concerned about this. The industry continues to rely too much on either casino cash or dark money and the pool of dark cash has evaporated in a hurry. Once PRIDE left the scene, so did a lot of the loose cash in the Asian fight scene. Morally and ethically, I support what police & politicians have tried to accomplish on this front. But the damage has been very real to combat sports, even deeper than I first thought.
Bellator’s success feels largely independent of UFC right now. It may last a few years and go away. It may last longer. I don’t think Bellator right now really is expanding the pie. What I do think Bellator’s November show in San Diego proved is that they can win over some disgruntled UFC fans and also bring in the casual MMA fans who simply haven’t kept up with the current scene. Any time some of the older fighters can continue getting pay days, that’s a good thing. As long as those fighters are still in good enough physical shape and are not in danger of permanently damaging their bodies, then there’s nothing wrong with veterans getting fights. At the same time, I will be interested to see if Bellator & Spike can get the star rub onto guys like Will Brooks and make them into household names. The UFC will undoubtedly poach Bellator’s top stars with higher frequency. Bellator will be able to survive as long as they are able to attract some big names and mix them onto cards with fights of importance and value.
The UFC, on the other hand, needs a complete reboot. From the production values to the matchmaking, there needs to be a dramatic overhaul and it needs to be done fast. 45 shows a year is putting so much pressure on the production staff that it simply does not allow the hard-working employees any time to breathe or gather their collective thoughts. It’s backbreaking work. Burt Watson and others get paid a respectable wage but it’s not nearly enough for all of the turmoil they have to manage & put up with. Dana White is skipping more and more shows. There’s this processed, antiseptic, automated feel right now for the UFC product that feels stale, old, and unimportant. Even the current 115-pound female version of The Ultimate Fighter on Fox Sports 1 is underwhelming in presentation.
In pro sports, you fire the GM and the coach when you need to shake up the scenery. There are also off-seasons where the athletes have a chance to catch their breathe and regroup. The UFC suffers from the worst of both worlds — ownership can’t remove itself from the scene, isn’t willing to make dramatic changes, and they have no desire (like WWE) to implement a seasonable format. Every time you compare a UFC event to a college football or pro-football or NBA game, it will always feel like a last-place sports product for importance.
UFC management has become the one thing they mocked a decade ago — conservative.
I enjoy Mixed Martial Arts. I have great respect for the athletes who have so much at risk in attempting to accomplish their professional & personal dreams. I also know that the industry’s long-term shelf life has some real question marks and I’m not sure the power brokers in Las Vegas fully understand the gravity of the current situation they are facing.
I’m not sure ESPN gets it either by hiring Chael Sonnen to be the face of their MMA coverage. You go from Josh Gross & Mike Fish exposing the industry’s testosterone plague to hiring the poster child of said plague and making that person the face of your MMA coverage.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.