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The view from 30,000 feet regarding the health of the Mixed Martial Arts industry

By Zach Arnold | November 25, 2014

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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.

Topics: Bellator, Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 29 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

29 Responses to “The view from 30,000 feet regarding the health of the Mixed Martial Arts industry”

  1. Ryan says:

    The move to FOX has really hurt their visibility. The fanbase has followed when possible (often via piracy because who gets these strange FOX Sports / formerly FUEL / Sportsnet One channels) but casuals can’t find the sport and have basically given up.

    Without a stable channel promoting things they haven’t been able to develop new stars. What’s worse, they shut down a lot of the good discussion online by being so crazy about copyright. Picture rights are given to getty (who *will* extract a settlement out of you for using their pics on your personal blog) and gifs are completely outlawed – whether its the main event KO from last night’s PPV or a clip of an unknown fighter on an upcoming card.

    Worst, they’ve got fighters on edge to the point where they are systematically grinding each other down in the gym, resulting in injury and taking who knows how many years off their careers.

    Sure, the UFC only needs things to bounce their way a bit in order to regain some mainstream attention but the way they’ve structured things actually works against this happening. From not promoting anyone but the headliners to creating a toxic employment situation where every fighter fears for their job and overtrains – there are very real issues that need to be addressed in order to avoid the UFC becoming another WWE, and not in a good way

  2. JV says:

    Welcome back, how about a nice dose of Fight Opinion radio covering all the news since you’ve been away?

  3. 45 Huddle says:

    Zuffa doesn’t have any clue at how to grow “the brand”. They try and control every single way a viewer can watch the UFC.

    They have banned gifs. They have banned youtube clips. They have even banned user created compilation videos. They go after people who are “stealing” their content. They are putting big time contenders on Fight Pass.

    They are just f#cking clueless. They don’t realize that you put the stuff out there and let the fanbase have a good time with it. It actually builds more fans.

    I can see how in their minds they think they are doing the right thing. But they aren’t.

    Do you know how many Game of Thrones clips I have watched on YouTube? Do you think it makes me less of a fan? It builds the fanbase….

    I wouldn’t even call myself a UFC fan right now. I can’t make it through one event without being extremely bored. I don’t know who any of these fighters are anymore and the ones I do know are so spread out on cards that it takes effort to watch them.

    Running 45 cards next year shows they haven’t learned the lessons of 2014.

    • Jason says:

      For not being a fan, you sure do piss and moan and whine and cry about the UFC alot. Christ you are worse than a 7th grader. With all of your vast experience in running multi-million dollar companies you might want to schedule a meeting with Dana and the Fertitta brothers to give them your valuable insight. SMH

      • Alan Conceicao says:

        I get a huge kick out of it because 45 was once clearly the biggest fan of the UFC brand and *everything* they were doing on the site.

        • edub says:

          We’ve had a lot of Jasons here.

        • nottheface says:

          Yeah, I’m still having a hard time coming to terms with him being a critic.

        • Mark says:

          Everyone came to terms with UFC being the king of the sport. Now he can’t troll on about Strikeforce and EliteXC having inferior fighters. Fedor losing and retiring took his heart out of it. So now say UFC sucks to get people riled up.

        • 45 Huddle says:

          Who am I getting riled up? Everybody here agrees with the majority of what I am currently saying.

      • 45 Huddle says:

        Do I really have a history of just complaining about the UFC? As Alan pointed out, I used to be one of their biggest supporters.

        And anybody with even 5th grade education can see they are running their company into the ground.

        • Ryan says:

          I wouldn’t say they’re running the company into the ground. There’s a method to their madness – they recognize that like wrestling, mma is cyclical and will boom and bust based on the stars of the moment. Right now they’re inbetween stars for the most part so they’re concentrating on international expansion while casting the net far and wide for new stars. Alas, the system they’ve developed isn’t helping expose fighters and letting them turn into stars – stars succeed in spite of it.

        • chico pico says:

          @Ryan: Right now they’re inbetween stars for the most part so they’re concentrating on international expansion while casting the net far and wide for new stars.

          Sorry but that sounds very much like PR talk.
          The big problem in their quest for new stars is that their preferred method which is buy off someone else’s circuit and fighter contracts isnt going to work with Bellator.

          When UFC brought PRIDE, the arrival of aging and war worn stars that you have heard about was a big boost even though some like Wandy, Rampage and the Nogs werent the fighters they once were but they had the name recognition.

          Im not a small guy fan but the WEC was absolutely rockin with great fighters and epic battles when they were bought.

          Elite didnt have much but when they brought Strikeforce it was again a great boost of fighters to the UFC rosters but younger than PRIDE old guys.

          Invicta some say should be bought but I dont see this in any way shape or form do anything for the UFC ratings.

          And Bellator might last longer than some of the others orgs simply because of the Spike TV deal and the backing of Viacom so I dont see them be able to boost the UFC ranks with new champs.

          There is no PRIDE,WEC,STRIKEFORCE equivalent they can mine for fighters like they did in the past decade.
          Let’s see them create stars. Im still reminded that friends of mine used to swear that UFC HW champ Tim Sylvia was the best fighter on the planet. So the UFC does ability to sell you anything.

        • Mark says:

          “When UFC brought PRIDE, the arrival of aging and war worn stars that you have heard about was a big boost even though some like Wandy, Rampage and the Nogs werent the fighters they once were but they had the name recognition.”

          Only Rampage drew buyrates out of that group on his own. Wanderlei peaked with UFC 79, and that had GSP/Hughes III as the main event. And it was because he was funny and charismatic, so people were immediately interested in him.

          It wasn’t PRIDE. I loved them, but nobody knew what they were. Nobody watched the FSN show. They spent a lot on advertising The Real Deal, had the #1 heavyweight in the world fight in the main event and drew 40,000 buys. Then they come back 4 months later with Wanderlei and do 50,000 with UFC fighters Nick Diaz (who had two high rated Fight Nights) and Frank Trigg (who headlined against Matt Hughes once) also on the card. People without the highly ranked fighters or DSE money have done better. They did sub-WFA numbers.

    • duck says:

      They also know that International TV rights can make you miles more money then any PPV ever could.

      I think it’s about branding more, everything is just a PPV, a Fight Night.

      Have a World Series were the elite fight, like F1 it would be a touring thing but unlike F1 it would be based in the US not Europe) then have monthly regional Fight Nights, were prospects grow, you can even have regional belts, it works in other sports, there is nothing wrong with being the UFC European (or EMEA) Champion or the Asian (or Asia Pacific) champion

  4. Kid Nate says:

    Glad you’re back Zach.

  5. King Famous says:

    I watched Frankie Edgar fight because he is great. I loved the new Bellator – its fun, wide open and doing things the UFC is not. The UFC is at this point a xerox machine. Same pre-fight hype, same ridiculous play calling, same everything. I can’t blame anyone for wanting world domination, I just wish they wanted to deliver quality to their fans in the process. A season would be great for UFC. The haphazard fight scheduling would be more contained and it would be easier to raise and lower expectations.

    • Chuck says:

      Could the UFC afford a seasonal schedule? Fighters only compete, on average, 2-4 times a year. They aren’t getting the year-round, back-breaking schedule pro wrestlers (especially those in the WWE) get. And WWE wrestlers of now have it way easier than those in the 80’s and 90’s had it. Maybe a Bellator or Japanese wrestling style schedule could work. Have two full seasons, then have a semi-off season or two with one or two shows a month in those spans. But UFC has a HUGE roster, and fighters need to fight to make money. They would have to cut their roster by about a third if they were to do what I mentioned. Maybe they could use a roster trimming? Who knows?

  6. Safari_Punch says:

    Nothing will change as long as the UFC has the FOX deal (guaranteed income) and Dana White is running the show. The UFCare basically taking their carnival show to more and more remote locations while business is in the dumps in their primary markets. Now they’re going to Russia? Maybe the Philippines? Yeah, big whoop.

    Zuffa looks like they have bought into their own hype and are trying to get as much money as they can, while they can, diluting the product along the way. I don’t buy the pro wrestling comparisons with the sport being cyclical, simply because it’s only been around roughly 20 years. Yes there was a boom at the start, but it was a much different sport; it was scary and taboo. Now? Fans are desensitized to wrestle/box generic fighters.

    It’s gonna get worse before it gets better. Grab your popcorn and enjoy the show.

    • duck says:

      Yeah big whoop, going to those places, kindly go check out how much Formula 1 is worth and they just ran their first event in Russia.

      FIFA aren’t running the World Cup in Russia and sponsored by Gazprom for fun, there is big money to be made there.

      • Safari_Punch says:

        We’re talking about the UFC, not those other “sports.”

        When the UFC goes back to these places, less and less people care. Why isn’t the UFC in Europe? Lots of money there. No one cares. They were in Germany and only did two shows and haven’t been back. Chinese office is already closed. Lots of money there too.

        Could the problem be that the UFC is like the boom?

        • Mark says:

          The problem is none of the fighters but Rousey and McGregor know how to sell fights anymore. Diaz does, but I don’t know if he knows he’s doing it or if he’s just insane.

          People bitched for years about how horrible guys like Tito, Koscheck and Brock were for acting like pro wrestlers. How this was demeaning to the sport of real athletes. So you get your wish and have vanilla champions like Cain Velasquez, Chris Weidman, Jon Jones, and Johny Hendricks. And what happens? Nobody cares about them even though they are way better fighters than the boom period era.

          That they’re not selling has nothing to do with Spike being a better market for selling fighters than FOX. It’s that they’ve only got one champion, an up and comer, and a undependable flake with anything to sell to casual fans.

          Bellator puts on a joke of a fight with two broken down guys who know how to sell a fight and the public still tunes in even though they know it’s 15 Minutes Of Grandpa.

          So that shows you the boom had everything to do with guys who know how to sell a personality beyond “I work really hard at the gym and love my family” Countdown interviews.

        • duck says:

          Germany is completely different, they don’t have any ranked fighters and the sport is currently banned from TV for being too brutal, Garry Cook has changed a bit of the perception, with Germany’s biggest newspaper, something like 75% said it was a sport and not just some human cock fighting thing.

          Russia is different, they have someone many argue is the GOAT, decently large shows that Vladimir Putin even attended, especially when Fedor had his little retirement tour, they also like Poland have the best crop of up and coming heavyweights not in the UFC.

    • Mark says:

      UFC wasn’t scary to anybody in 2005. The boom was fighters had personalities and now don’t. I’d love to see a poll of casual fans to see if they even realize Cain has been gone.

      Meanwhile Floyd Mayweather does the same “I’m rich, did I mention that? Hard work, dedication, dedication” act twice a year for Showtime and buys like 10 Bugatti’s when his check comes. Chris Weidman can’t even be bothered to show a pulse on television and is depending on Ronda Rousey to co-headline his PPVs to draw a dime.

      • Safari_Punch says:

        @M Mark — When I say the “start,” I’m talking about the original UFC’s in the early 90’s, which I probably should have clarified (I was half asleep when I wrote it). Many would agree it was scary because it was almost barred from every region in North America but two U.S. states. Those that think the boom was only in the mid-2000’s need to look at how many homes were wired for PPV in the 1990’s and how many fans watched in comparison. One could even argue that the mid 2000’s were scary to the new fans that started following during that time period, as many were too young to see the early UFC’s (but most claim to have been fans since the beginning thanks to video access).

        The more I think about it, I’m not so sure “star power” isn’t a byproduct of the “newness” of the sport in both the early UFC’s and TUF generation. IMO, fighters like Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture had no personality — they just happened to in the right place at the right time, having the vehicle of TUF. Lesnar had pro wrestling fans tuning in. GSP, another TUF product developed a following based on the publicity the show provided, fighting style be damned.

        The novelty has worn off. What was once exciting, isn’t more due to the sheer number of events. Casuals and hardcores are desensitized to it.

        It doesn’t help that the The rules favor the often boring styles of wrestlers, especially in the caged environment. Any casual fan I’ve spoken to, cannot stand lay and pray. One could argue “oh they don’t understand what they are watching.” I’ve done judo for seven years and I agree with their opinions: it’s not entertaining for the most part. Either someone is entertained or they are not. You can’t tell someone is wrong if they are not entertained.

        I’m so thankful for places like Japan where they are not afraid to think “outside the box” in terms of combat sports. Former K-1 president, Tanikawa is starting the promotion “Ganryujima” (the site of the duel between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro). Totally different MMA rules designed to reduce certain aspects of ground fighting. I’m sure it will be met with resistance from some longtime and not so longtime fans, but I guess it depends on your mentality.

        @ Zach

        Have you had a chance to check out the structure “Ganryujima?” They are still trying to figure out the rules the last I checked. Open mat similar to sumo will be the fighting surface.

        • Mark says:

          Ah, okay.

          Chuck and Randy weren’t charisma machines, but they had marketable personalities.

          Randy was the amazing ageless wonder, the guy who everybody cheered for because he was doing the impossible. 6’8″ Tim Sylvia should have cleaned his clock, but Couture punched him down to the mat in a matter of moments. People loved that.

          Chuck was the silent killer. Sure, his fights are what really sold, people wanted to see the great knockout. But he was the crazy looking guy with a mohawk who people could relate to wanting to shut Tito Ortiz up. And people liked he was really just a regular guy, a dad with an accounting degree who was a bad ass. Could Jon Jones go on an episode of Entourage as the scary guy wanting revenge for Johnny Drama stealing his parking spot?

  7. duck says:

    Was just thinking that another problem is the Fox Sports Shows that last 5 hours, not PPVs but actual normal fight nights.

    I have always liked 4 fights in 2 hours plus.

    Basically every card has at least has 2 top 10 fighters main eventing, sometimes as many as 5 fighters ranked, you throw in a potential up and comer fight with potential and maybe an older guy the fans remember and you have what seems like a strong card.

    look at the last fight night

    and two of these fights
    liynyk-Rosholt or Benavidez-Ortiz fight would be a decent card.

    They can either show the prelims on Fight Pass of FS2 that no one but die hards watch.

    Watching 5 hours of non stop MMA is insane, it can work from time to time if the card is completely stacked but not with a bunch of up and comers.

    If Fox has a problem with this, maybe offer the European fight nights for free, I’m sure ratings wouldn’t suffer that much by being on during the day.

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