by Steve Borchardt
If you were the type already predisposed not to take the World Series of Fighting seriously, chances are this past Saturday's sophomore effort from the fledgling promotion didn't do much to change your mind.
First of all, there's that name. For Major League Baseball the World Series represents the pinnacle of the sport; it's the proving ground where the two top teams meet at the culmination of a long season to determine who has the right to call themselves the best in the league. When it comes to MMA however, the World Series of Fighting can best be described as something between a retirement home for fighters who are past their primes and a half-way house for those who are down on their luck and trying to work their way back to the UFC. Calling a show headlined by a long since defanged "Pitbull" Andrei Arlovski and a bloated middleweight fighting two weight classes above his optimal weight in Anthony "Rumble" Johnson a World Series is like calling an indy pro wrestling show with a main event of Honky Tonk Man vs. Matt Hardy “the Superbowl of Wrestling." The contrast between the promotion's grandiose name and the quality of its talent only serves to reinforce the widespread perception of WSOF as a third rate organization.
Even if we take the Bard's oft repeated lines about "a rose by any other name" to heart and look past the ridiculous moniker, WSOF has major problems. Not the least of which is assembling a roster that will enable them to grow their fanbase.
There's a Catch 22 in today's MMA landscape that any start-up promotion had better have a plan for dealing with: since the UFC is far and away the dominant industry leader, you have the choice of either focusing primarily on former UFC fighters Zuffa felt they could no longer make money with or concentrating on developing your own homegrown talent. If you go for the former approach you risk coming across as second rate and miss out on opportunities to groom fresh talent. However, the latter approach makes it difficult to build an immediate fanbase as your brand struggles to establish itself. While there is certainly some middle ground between these two extremes, given the UFC's roster depth and ability to sign virtually any free agent they may desire, an upstart promotion finds itself forced to throw its lot in with one of these two camps to a greater or lesser extent.
WSOF, by and large, have opted to put their chips down on fighters with prior UFC exposure. The mindset behind this approach is that you need established stars in order to attract fans to the arenas and viewers on TV. At first glance it would seem a sound philosophy. Fans are more likely to watch a show featuring names they recognize rather than one populated up and down the card by a bunch of unknowns. Of course the obvious problem here is that there's invariably a reason these fighters aren't in the UFC anymore. Either they couldn't hang at the top level or Zuffa felt they weren't worth investing in. It's tough for a promotion that chooses this approach to avoid the perception they're taking the UFC's table scraps and attempting to pass them off as gourmet fare.
Even more problematic for WSOF, it's not like there's any shortage of MMA programming available to fans right now. With the UFC putting on roughly 20 free cards a year in addition to 13 or so pay per views - which is to say nothing of weekly Bellator shows on Spike running throughout much of the year - the MMA market is as saturated as a rice paddy field after a monsoon. Given that there isn't a strong demand for a third national MMA company, it's incumbent on any organization attempting to throw its hat in the promotional ring to have a hook that differentiates itself from everyone else.
Bellator had this with the tournament format back when they were the upstart number three promotion to Strikeforce's number two. While there is obviously room for debate on whether or not Bellator left money on the table over the years by their strict adherence to the tournament format, overall it should be seen as a positive in that it gave them a unique identity that helped them stand out amid a glut of smaller companies. It also enabled them to create homegrown stars out of relative unknown fighters - well, stars relative to Bellator's pre-Spike television clearance at least - which is an area where most start ups struggle.
Two events into its existence and it still remains unclear just what WSOF stands for. Despite their ambitious name, are they content to be the Double-A baseball to Bellator's Triple-A and the UFC's Major Leagues? Are they actually naïve enough to believe that through some trick of promotional alchemy they can transform spare parts cobbled together from the UFC's scrap heap into promotional gold?
In an attempt to get a better idea of what WSOF's mission statement is I went to their website and, after quite a bit more time searching than should have been necessary, I found this quote: "World Series of Fighting is a professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight promotion dedicated to delivering an incredible, action packed entertainment experience for fight fans by producing the best possible matchups between elite fighters from around the globe."
Forgoing the low hanging fruit of poking fun at the idea of describing the depressing fiasco that was David Branch vs. Paulo Filho as "an incredible, action packed entertainment experience," am I the only one who gets the feeling that whoever wrote this ad hoc mission statement for WSOF spent all of ten seconds on it? That it relies so heavily on platitudes utterly devoid of semantic content tells me that Ray Sefo and his partner Sig Rogich don't have any clue themselves what makes WSOF a viable alternative to the UFC. If all they're about is "producing the best possible matchups between elite fighters from around the globe" I've got some bad news for them: the UFC already does that, only Zuffa is able to make far better matchups using fighters who are actually considered elite in 2013.
That last part hints at the one commodity that is currently unavailable to WSOF at the moment: stars. In any type of promotion - be it boxing, kickboxing, pro wrestling, or MMA - stars are the engines that drive business. Currently the only active free agent who is still considered a star by your average MMA fan is Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, but he was earning around $250,000 a fight in the UFC. That’s $190,000 more than the event-high $60,000 Arlovski made at WSOF 1. Is a business savvy public relations and advertising wizard like Rogich going to be willing to spend that kind of money on a single fighter? Luckily for WSOF, Fedor Emelianenko suffered a few losses and retired so they won't be faced with the temptation to shell out the Last Emperor's exorbitant asking price. Just ask Affliction and Strikeforce what happens when you put your future in hock to pay for an overpriced free agent.
Obviously the ideal situation for WSOF given their business model would be to use whatever aging stars they have available to help build up younger homegrown fighters, but that's easier said than done. What exactly does a win over Andrei Arlovski or Miguel Torres mean at this stage in either man's career? So far the biggest stars in WSOF with a winning record in the promotion are probably Josh Burkman and Anthony Johnson - two former UFC fighters who, if we're being honest here, would probably jump at the chance to fight for the UFC again. Other than that there's Jon Fitch who is coming off a loss in the UFC and has yet to fight in WSOF and Marlon Moraes, a relatively unknown bantamweight who has turned in two impressive main card performances.
With the above in mind it seems ludicrous to begin talking about the WSOF creating championship belts. Isn’t the whole purpose of a title belt to demarcate who the best fighter in a given division is? WSOF's roster is so thin that even if someone like Fitch were to win a title, he'd be reigning over a division populated by only three or four other fighters. Is that really an accomplishment worth melting down ten pounds of gold for?
Then again, WSOF desperately needs to do something to make its events seem significant. In sharp contrast the UFC and Bellator, none of its shows feel like they are building to anything. People don't tune into sports merely because they enjoy the game being played; what attracts the majority of sports fans is the significance of a given contest. If fighter A beating fighter B puts him that much closer to a title - one that actually means something - then suddenly it seems like a bigger deal than just two guys doing battle in a cage. Likewise with feuds between two fighters who have a personal issue with one another. Just throwing out random fights between whoever is available like the WSOF seems to do isn't going to get fans emotionally invested in the product.
Unfortunately there aren't any easy answers to the problems facing the WSOF. However, if Sefo and Rogich want their promotion stick around they would be wise to start doing a better job addressing these issues. If we can learn one thing from the abundance of failed promotions buried in the elephant's graveyard of MMA, it's that attempting to carve out a niche in this business without first learning from the mistakes of the past is a surefire recipe for failure.
Too bad nobody seems to have told that to those in charge of the WSOF yet.