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UFC’s return to Japan: They are who we thought they were, but we’re not letting them off the hook

By Zach Arnold | September 5, 2011

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If you have not yesterday’s item about UFC’s return to Japan that I posted on the web site, read it first before you continue reading.

Today, UFC Asian marketing director Mark Fischer held a presser in a Japanese theatre to announced what Gong Kakutougi had spilled the beans on. UFC will return to Japan on Sunday, February 26th. The show will air live on US PPV on the 25th. So, what’s the kicker? The Japanese show will start live at 10 AM JST.

Notes from Dan Herbertson & Tony Loiseleur:

Interesting tidbit from the UFC Japan presser: the plan is to make a Japan show an annual event on top of other Asia-based shows. According to Mark Fischer, the plan is to configure the SSA for 20,000 seats. The show is slated to start at 10 AM on Sunday, allowing it to line up in the usual time slot in North America. KID, Fukuda, Gomi, Okami, Akiyama, Omigawa, Hioki, Mizugaki are all possibilities for UFC Japan but are not yet officially on the card. Fischer said it would basically be a Japanese version of UFC Rio. Lots of local fighters and local media events.

Where do we begin with these developments?

First, the comparison of UFC using the same marketing model that they did in Rio and expecting it to work in Japan is asinine. As Lorenzo Fertitta told Ariel Helwani a couple of weeks ago, UFC was able to prime the Brazilian market by having an over-the-air television deal in place.

“In addition to that, we’ve really only been on free-to-air TV here for about two years. Before that, we were on a subscription channel that didn’t have that many subscribers but now we’re kind of reaching the masses. The fight on Saturday night between Anderson (Silva) and Yushin (Okami), we’re expecting between 20-to-30 million people to watch it on free TV so it’s a big event.”

Put the pieces of the puzzle together here. UFC had a great TV deal in Brazil, ran a show in Rio featuring Brazilian fighters at the top of their game (Shogun, Anderson), and they drew big business. UFC has no network TV deal in Japan, is running a show at PRIDE’s old house, and is not booking Japanese talent that anyone can consider championship-level right now. Got it.

Tweet of the Days in response to this news and my reaction to it from Kyle Canella and Ken Foss:

@FightOpinion Also a pretty big admission that the UFC can’t make money from a Japanese tv deal.

If you’re holding an event in Japan and your catering to anything but the Japanese audience, you’ve already failed.

Think about how insulting it is to the Japanese fans to tell them that this show is going to start at 10 AM in the morning. The kind of people willing to show up for an event like that for that time frame are really hardcore fans. UFC does not have a substantial hardcore MMA fan base to work with in Japan and the hardcore MMA fans remaining in Japan have a very mixed opinion about UFC as a product.

Let me frame it to you this way — imagine if DREAM held a press conference in Los Angeles and announced that they were going to book the Staples Center, have no network/cable television deal to speak of, and that the card will start at 3 AM in the morning so that the Japanese fans could watch it live on network TV back home at 8 PM. American fans would either laugh their asses off or be horribly & rightfully insulted at the fact that the promoters are treating them as an afterthought.

Have promoters ran Noon or 12:30 starts at Korakuen Hall for Sunday shows? Yes, occasionally, in the past when business as doing better. However, Korakuen Hall is not SSA.

(A possible fix to this issue would be for UFC to push back the PPV start an hour, maybe two hours in the States and give the Japanese fans a break with a true afternoon start for a main card. It would be a productive move on their part.)

Michael Ford brought up the analogy of NFL football games airing on TV at 10 AM. The problem with the analogy is that NFL games on the West Coast live (49ers, Cardinals, Seahawks, etc.) start at 1 PM. Apples and oranges for a comparison.

UFC cannot, with a straight face, look at the Japanese fans in the eye and tell them that the Saitama Super Arena show is all about them when you’re starting the damn event at 10 AM in the morning so Americans can watch it on PPV live. Even Vince McMahon had the foresight to run a RAW taping at SSA a few years ago on delay. It reminds me of a story Dave Meltzer once told on one of his radio shows about Vince where he pissed off the Japanese in the early 90s by showing up late to a press conference for a co-promotional WWE/All Japan show at the Tokyo Dome. McMahon showing up late turned off a lot of people in Japan.

Which reminds me of today’s UFC presser in which a VTR (video tape recording) of Dana White was played to the media. So, why wasn’t he at the Japanese press conference? Because he’s getting ready to do press in Las Vegas for the upcoming Georges St. Pierre/Nick Diaz fight in late October. In our opinion, Dana White sent the message to the Japanese fans that he wouldn’t even show up in Japan to do the presser for his own vanity show.

As for UFC proclaiming that they will return annually to Japan? OK, good luck on that one. Hope you can do a better job keeping that promise unlike the “Super Bowl” promise you made to the Japanese fans after you bought out the PRIDE assets from Nobuyuki Sakakibara. Maybe you can tell the public why Jamie Pollack got the hell out of Japan in rapid fashion after you sent him over there to try to run an office in Japan. I’m sure running live shows at 10 AM in the morning with no network television support is really going to win over some important people.

My takeaway from today’s presser in Japan: I knew it was a vanity show all along and, yet, I was not surprised by the online reaction criticizing me for stating the obvious. So, what am I surprised about? I’m surprised at just how nakedly transparent UFC is in regards to not even making standard concessions to the beleaguered Japanese MMA audience in regards to the production of this vanity show. We’re going to get the standard cookie-cutter UFC production with a 10 AM start time.

If UFC is truly living in a bubble and thinks that what they are planning for this Japanese show will work like it does everywhere else, then they are even more clueless than I thought they were. But you know what? I don’t believe that. Their front office reads this site and has read this site since it first started. They are not dumb. What they are, however, is egregiously arrogant and flippant. As I stated before, UFC has money to burn on a Japanese joy ride and what Dana wants, Dana gets. This is going to be his grand ‘ol party to say screw you to the ghost of PRIDE in PRIDE’s old home arena. This is his message to the Japanese MMA fans that what promoters served them was inherently wrong and that he’s going to show the fans ‘the right way’ to produce an MMA show.

I’m not here to cheerlead for the current MMA landscape in Japan. I’ve made my thoughts very clear about what’s wrong in Japan and what needs to change. However, I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and watch a bunch of MMA media outlets shake the proverbial poms poms and tell you that what UFC is doing in Japan is 100% right. It’s not. Not only is this a vanity show, it’s a pretty lazy attempt at one as well — both from a business standpoint and an intellectual one as well. You’re not going to build a foothold in the Japanese marketplace without a major broadcast over-the-air network in Japan pushing the product. UFC is not a Japanese company and they do not allow outsiders to control their matchmaking, two aspects which are mandatory in getting a network television deal with an outlet like Fuji TV. And that’s if a major Japanese TV network is even interested, which they are not right now because of what a dirty cesspool the fight game has truly become in the country.

Unless circumstances change over the months to come, I don’t know how one can classify the current behavior of the UFC’s return to Japan as a serious long-term business proposition. Before today’s press conference, I was on the fence about the show. I know it’s a vanity show but at least I was willing to give UFC the benefit of the doubt in figuring out how to even do a couple of little things right. Instead, that’s all been thrown out the window with a Vince McMahon-style approach to nuance. However, even Vince was smarter about what not to do in Japan when he made his attempt last decade to get a foothold in the marketplace.

Topics: Japan, Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 31 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

31 Responses to “UFC’s return to Japan: They are who we thought they were, but we’re not letting them off the hook”

  1. liger05 says:

    10am start. That’s absurd!!!

  2. nottheface says:

    So let me get this right, they are going to stack the card with Japanese fighters either unfamiliar to fans who have been watching Japanese fighters on terrestrial tv the last decade or who have been racking up loses unseen and oversees, or with old Pride fighters who haven’t set foot in Japan in five years. Hmm. And they’re going to start the show, in a country who views themselves as the center of sougou kakutougi, at 10 am? I can’t see how this doesn’t become a major success.

    • Chromium says:

      10 am start time aside, what choice do they have? I was surprised by the start time too but a 10 am start time is the trade-off for getting an A-level card you know. I’m going to hold my criticism until I see the line-up.

      • Chris27 says:

        Exactly, if they wanted to do a shit card with nobody on it then they would do it at a normal time and just tape delay it to FX or Fuel or whatever network UFC/Fox decides, probably could work something out with FX outside of the 6 Fight nights they could probably get them to add this special Japan card on tape delay. They would do that if the card was gonna be shit but doing it at 10am so it can air live in the US on PPV, which is where the UFC makes its money, that leads me to believe they are gonna make this a very solid show, probably with a title fight, the only way to do that and make it work is to have it live in the US on PPV.

        PPV in the US is how the UFC makes money, its why UK cards arent big cause they have to be tape delayed to US fans and tape delayed cards dont usually do well on PPV.

        If UK fans start paying for PPV like the US fans do and the UFC can make up some of the money they would lose by tape delaying the card to the US fans, then they would start doing big cards with titel fights in the UK.

        Frankly I dont care if they do great or if they fail in Japan, who cares, its a card, probably will be a good one, will have a Pride feel to it, it will be a cool event, it will have good fights on it, if it does well then good, if not, whatever.

  3. Chromium says:

    Full disclosure: I already tweeted part of this argument at you.

    The 10 am start time is surprising but it also means the Japan show may get a World Title match with a major champion. That’s a trade-off I think British fans wish they could have instead of Munoz vs. Leben headlining. I think the success of this show will depend on the number of MMA fanatics who are more fans of the sport than of a one-time fad. You saw plenty of American fans like that when Pride went to Las Vegas. 12,000 of them in fact. Yes, this means that Japanese fans watching on tv either would have to watch a show at 10 am in the morning or get a tape delayed viewing in their own country, but the potential for a really good card is greatly improved by the timeslot. I’d wait until the card is announced to make that judgement. Hioki vs. Aldo (or Kenny Florian) for the FW title is a stretch but not completely implausible.

    Basically, I’m wondering where the degree of hate is coming from. Dana White may emulate Vince McMahon but he is not the same person, and the UFC never raped the corpse of Pride like Vince McMahon did to WCW. If I’m cheerleading, I honestly would love to see the UFC succeed because I want to see reconciliation. I want Japanese fighters to succeed and give Japanese fans someone to root for. I’m not saying that Dana White and Zuffa are moral angels. I was appalled that Michihiro Omigawa’s contract started at $8k + $8k a fight, for instance, and still think a majority of UFC fighters are underpaid. But I don’t get why people consider Dana White to be some evil entity laughing at the steep decline of MMA in Japan, looking to rub salt in the wounds. You know as well as anyone that Pride’s collapse happened of its own accord, it wasn’t something that the UFC caused. It was also long enough ago that apparently local promotional partners in Japan are willing to work with Zuffa now somewhat. The resentment has softened there. Just as I resent stupid newbies that claim the UFC is the end-all be-all of the sport and no one is good if they aren’t in the UFC, I also wish the people still mourning the ghost of Pride would move on from it.

    I respect your opinions Zach, even if I don’t always agree with them, but it still seems strange to me to express this much disdain over all this.

    • Zach Arnold says:

      Hioki vs. Aldo (or Kenny Florian) for the FW title is a stretch but not completely implausible.

      As a fight itself, that bout would be largely meaningless to the Japanese fight public. Hioki’s relatively unnown.

      Basically, I’m wondering where the degree of hate is coming from.

      Me stating the opinion that this is a vanity show for Dana is not hate. It’s my belief and it’s built on prior & historical experience, plus comments he has made in the past.

      Dana White may emulate Vince McMahon but he is not the same person, and the UFC never raped the corpse of Pride like Vince McMahon did to WCW.

      There were great hopes for WWE/WCW interpromotional cards and it didn’t happen. UFC promised the Japanese fans a ‘Super Bowl’ event with PRIDE and look what happened to Jamie Pollack.

      If I’m cheerleading, I honestly would love to see the UFC succeed because I want to see reconciliation. I want Japanese fighters to succeed and give Japanese fans someone to root for.

      Reconciliation of what? Japanese fans want a Japanese MMA product and Japanese stars without having to deal with yakuza scandals.

      But I don’t get why people consider Dana White to be some evil entity laughing at the steep decline of MMA in Japan, looking to rub salt in the wounds.

      If you listen to him talk about Sakuraba and other Japanese legends, he truly believes in his heart that the way MMA was promoted in Japan is wrong and that he’s right. PRIDE was his biggest rival on the global stage.

      You know as well as anyone that Pride’s collapse happened of its own accord, it wasn’t something that the UFC caused. It was also long enough ago that apparently local promotional partners in Japan are willing to work with Zuffa now somewhat.

      Who knows who they are in bed with, but right now no real Japanese TV network of substance as a partner and no real promotional partner like Total Sports Asia involved.

      If anything, you stumbled into the interesting elephant in the room which is which stooges will try to sabotage the show and which ones might appear as unwanted company. This is Japan, after all.

      The resentment has softened there.

      We’re going to find out. Interesting is that the Japanese reaction I’ve gotten so far in private is what I’ve voiced on here, whereas everyone outside of Japan is reacting very differently.

      • Chromium says:

        If I didn’t have to go to work in a bit, I’d respond to more of this, so I just thought I’d ask about that last part.

        We’re going to find out. Interesting is that the Japanese reaction I’ve gotten so far in private is what I’ve voiced on here, whereas everyone outside of Japan is reacting very differently.

        This is something I think people would like to hear a lot more about you know. I’d be extremely interested to hear what the private Japanese opinion is and what sorts of people it’s coming from (are you talking about fans, journalists, industry folk, fighters or some combination?).

        I do have to ask how deep the xenophobia runs in Japan. This isn’t to say that Americans aren’t also guilty of xenophobia, because frankly I see racist s*** that disgusts me all the time here. It’s just there are also plenty of fans and have been plenty of fans who are realistic about who the best fighters in the world are, enough that the UFC could survive on the backs of the fanatics alone if nothing else. Considering that the steep decline of JMMA isn’t due to anything done by foreigners, I’d figure that there might still be enough fanatics there who are purely fans of the sport to still make go of it. As for a tv deal, I’m not convinced that a one-off deal might not be worked out, if the UFC is sincerely going to make a go of it, misguided or not. I don’t think they’d do a time-buy, but I think they’d want exposure over a profit this time around. I view Dana White as a guy who may be an asshole but he’s also a pragmatist, and way more in-touch and less racist than Vince McMahon who also has both of those qualities. Then again maybe I am being way too optimistic here, I don’t know. We’ll see I guess.

    • Light23 says:

      I would definitely go to a UFC in the UK at 2AM if it meant getting any world title fight.

      I think Zach is being a tad overly negative towards this. It’d be funny if all those Pride fans you say went away from MMA, came back now that they found an option that wasn’t mobbed up to the gills.

      • Zach Arnold says:

        A lot of those fans were PRIDE fans only.

        I said 12,000-14,000 would be a ‘moderate’ success and no reason to back off of it. A 10 AM start and no major broadcast TV deal, though, makes it a little more difficult.

  4. Adam says:

    I think we need to get over this nonsense that a 10am start time guarantees a ‘PPV quality card’. The quality of UFC PPVs varies greatly on typical American cards as it is. But considering the UFC’s common (and misguided) approach to make foreign cards ‘Home nation v the world’, and a current lack of truly high ranking Japanese fighters, it seems we are destined to have what is more like a fight-night quality card with a big headliner if we’re lucky.

    I struggle to see much right with the way the UFC is approaching this show. The start time won’t win them any fans, and will probably cost them much of their possible publicity an popularity in the country. Australia may have accepted an early start as a new market to MMA, but I will understand if Japanese fans perceived this as an insult to their value to the UFC. As I gather they have no TV deal, what possible reach will they have in Japan outside of the 15-20,000 people in attendance? And if they will achieve little in Japan, what is the point in going there at all?

    Canada and Brazil have been open goals, making it very easy for the UFC to succeed. Japan should be fertile ground, but it seems the UFC either doesn’t see, or doesn’t care about the potential obstacles that could make this whole event pointless. The UK should have been a relatively easy market for the UFC, but they have made hard work of it over the years by acting as their own worst enemy with weak cards, actively bad public relations and mismanagement of TV deals. I don’t see much different happening when the UFC enters Japan.

  5. Steve4192 says:

    “Think about how insulting it is to the Japanese fans to tell them that this show is going to start at 10 AM in the morning”

    It doesn’t seem to bother the Australians.

    • Zach Arnold says:

      They were running in the afternoon. That’s not 10 AM. Asking fans to get up at 6 in the morning or earlier so they can catch a train to go to Saitama and beat the crowd without missing fights?

      The attitude from those not in Japan about the start time has this ridiculous ‘get over it’ vibe, as if 10 AM start times are the norm for American shows or shows in other markets. You’re promoting a show to the Japanese, a fan base notorious for wanting to be looked at as #1, and you’re telling them right away that this show isn’t 100% about them. Do people not see the disconnect here?

      As far as the Australian fans go, I love them. A hearty bunch that proved their mettle and then some.

      A temporary solution to the show time would be to bump up the PPV time an hour, perhaps two and help move up the Japanese clock to afternoon. It would be sensible to do. Let’s hope they consider it.

    • Adam says:

      Japan is not Australia. This is the former home of PRIDE, the host of the biggest events MMA has ever seen. But the UFC turns up and tells them they have to get to the arena at 10am to watch a show because it suits the US audience. With an event that won’t even be on a major Japanese TV channel.

      It’s hardly a way to win over what could potentially be one of your biggest markets.

  6. 45 Huddle says:

    I don’t look at this as a vanity play at all. Here is what is likely happening.

    Zuffa has a list of countries they want to test the markets of. Some of them are more promising then others on paper….

    Australia out performed. So did Brazil. Germany was a bust. The UK has been so-so, but still has potential with a breakout star.

    It’s much easier to test the Japanese market out with one shows…. See if there is potential profit…. And then plan accordingly from there.

    That’s all this show is. Not a vanity play. Not an irrational company just trying to send a message. It purely to see if there is future dollars in Japan in MMA with the UFC type of fighting.

    As for the 10am start time… This show probably has over a 50% chance os losing money no matter what time they put it on. Which means to turn a profit, the money will have to come from US PPV Dollars.

    Which is why the start time is at 10am….

    • Zach Arnold says:

      I wouldn’t say 50% chance of losing money given how much UFC pays fighters not named Anderson or Rampage or Henderson.

      Think about it from the view of a Japanese fan (and I talked to a couple of PRIDE hardcores today). To get to Saitama by 10 AM from Tokyo or out further, you have to get up real early and hope that from 8 AM to 10 AM that you can get the train to the arena. A lot of the public uses the trains, so they have to plan around crowds and other logistical issues.

      I agree with you — PPV is the only way they can make the $ work here, but that’s because they don’t have a television deal in Japan unlike in Rio, in Australia, and in other markets where they can make money on a big scale. Of all the markets you listed, Japan is one of the last that most businesses would focus on now (and for good reason).

      • 45 Huddle says:

        It’s still a check box on a list that they need to check off as either viable or not.

        And Japan isn’t going to create anymore talent anytime soon. While the current crop isn’t great, this will be the best line-up they can do for at least the next 5 years.

        It’s a now or not for a long time sort of thing….

        And I’m not saying it’s going to be a success. In fact, I have always thought the UFC would never translate well to the Japanese market and I still believe that. This will be a 1 and done venture to Japan.

        But this is the time to do it if they want to test the market….

      • frankp316 says:

        I think we should start a pool about how many comps the UFC will have to give out to fill this joint. The Dana White Kool Aid drinkers need to smarten up. Did anyone see the interview he did a few weeks ago where he got into an argument with the media about PRIDE and especially Fedor? He pulled out a list of Fedor’s matches to prove his point. That’s the definition of obsessive and pointless behaviour. He thinks doing a show in Japan will end the argument. It’s ridiculous. He’s letting his personal feelings get in the way of business common sense. It’s a waste of time and money. It would have been worth doing a few years ago but not today. What’s the point? There’s nothing to conquer there. The fight business in Japan has killed themselves. He’s like a buzzard picking over bones.

        • Zach Arnold says:

          You raise an interesting point I didn’t consider — if they give out the comps, will the majority of them go to the US military? If so, will that create a situation like the King of the Cage show did in Okinawa where the atmosphere was more Americanish than a true Japanese crowd?

        • A. Mogue says:

          Even if they give out Comp Tickets, The Air Force Bases of Kadena and Yokota along with Okinawa navy/few marines cant fill up the arena. Just not possible. Alot of mission essential people who wont be able to get off work.

    • Chris27 says:

      exactly, the UFC cant try to see if they can do anything in that market?

      Honestly I come to this site to read your thoughts more then I do Zack’s.

  7. david m says:

    This won’t draw on PPV. The UFC Rio event allegedly did 300k buys despite featuring the guy they have been pushing as the best fighter in the world as well as Forrest vs Shogun. This card won’t be nearly as good, because quite frankly, Japanese fighters aren’t as good as Brazilian ones. Americans don’t have any natural inclination towards thinking Japanese fighters are good; Okami and Akiyama are the only two successful Asian mma fighters in the US scene today.

    This is entirely Dana walking over PRIDE’s grave; they have analytics and know this shit won’t be a money-maker, but this is to assuage Dana’s ego and reassert that UFC was better than PRIDE (even though it was not).

    • frankp316 says:

      Hurricane Irene had a lot to do with lower numbers for UFC Rio. People have such short memories.

      • david m says:

        Maybe 100k buy difference? I was in DC and we didn’t lose power until like 4AM. I think the bar experience has really hurt PPV buy rate (although certainly it is another revenue stream for the UFC). The bar I go to for UFC fights is often quite crowded, and I would guess something like 4 people at a bar = 1 buy.

      • Zach Arnold says:

        Yes and no. I would primarily say no because a lot of UFC’s biggest PPV markets were not in the path of the hurricane.

        • Chris27 says:

          The entire East Coast isnt a big market?

          I’d say that hurt PPV sales alot.

          People lost power on the east coast, were afraid they would lose power so they wouldnt order 60 dollar PPV only to lose power during it, people stayed home and didnt go out etc.

          Irene def had a major impact on PPV sales, if it really only did 300 to 350k like they are saying then I’d bet with no Hurricane it probably would have done over 500k.

    • 45 Huddle says:

      Did Dave Meltzer confirm the 300,000 PPV Numbers?

      The only source I have seen for that number issome random guy on The UG who said it without a source.

      And a well known UFC employee came onto the thread and just posted a smiley face, making me think it was way off base.

      • Zheroen says:

        mmalogic and smiley faces on the UG, ladies and gentleman – you can’t get much more definitive than that in the way of sources.

      • Kelvin Hunt says:

        I find it hard to believe that UFC 134 only did 300K PPV buys…though the Hurricane definitely impacted it..I live in Raleigh, NC…my home never lost power but my sister in law’s home 6 miles away did…and I didn’t order the PPV because of fear of losing power…I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in that situation..and to think that this was the case on the east coast from NC up to NY/Penn…some of the most populated areas in the U.S…

  8. […] to the Japanese fan base. After all, who wants to go to a MMA event at 10am on a Sunday morning? Fight Opinion’s Zach Arnold thinks this further proves his point that this is nothing more than a “vanity show.” I knew it […]

  9. […] don’t know how well it’s going to go. I mean, you even look at the most basic set-ups. They do this press conference in Shinjuku to announce this and Zuffa’s Asian foremost guy is still Mark Fischer. Japanese people don’t see this as […]


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