SPECTACLE OR SPORT?
By Ben Miller
Jim Ross has done it again. Again, he’s gotten them mad. Again, it’s not his fault. And, again, he’s right. Only this time, the “they” isn’t WWE management, the “fault” has nothing to do with jealousy and he’s “right” about MMA, not professional wrestling.
To recap, J.R.’s latest accidental foray into controversy came via Twitter (@jrsbbq) when he wrote, “Re: MMA, IMO as a fan, UFC should be promoting Randy Couture's last fight more prominently. Would help Toronto PPV buys, again IMO.” A Twitterspeak-to-straight-talk translation would read: "I don’t care how many PPV buys UFC has been getting. They’re blowing it with UFC 129. They have a legitimate legend competing for the last time and they’re promoting run of the mill championship matches instead." The back and forth between J.R. and his 135,000 followers culminated in the way that many battles between the enlightened and the unenlightened do: a cryptic, acerbic insult (“Amazing how many simply 'don't get' the elements 1 needs to promote a major ufc ppv in a STADIUM. Promoters need multiple hooks 2 sell ppvs.”).
J.R. got people mad because he pointed out the flaws in the pay-per-view promotion of a successful live event. And while a seminar by the man under the Stetson on the differences between pay-per-view and live event promotion would put yours truly’s butt in a seat, the more interesting subtext here is the way in which UFC drew the live crowd for UFC 129. A company that has built their business on an orthodox model of sports promotion has, at least for one show, gone the way of Barnum & Bailey.
Sporting events (which includes professional wrestling back when it was promoted like a sport) have traditionally been promoted based around competition; almost as a metaphor for war. Just as wars break out over wealth, supremacy, historical grudges, differences in perspective or even women, so do successfully promoted sporting events. That is what a championship is, after all: a sign of supremacy (and from that, wealth and women). In more specific terms, sporting events are promoted around a fundamental conflict between two parties in opposition to one another. One wants to defeat the other or win a championship or, if the promoter is lucky, both.
As the company has ascended, UFC has promoted (brilliantly, I might add) around this idea of intractable conflict. They protect their championships, they promote rematches and grudges judiciously and they always sell the fight first. In a way, they are even doing it for UFC 129. They have two matches in which only one man can be rewarded with the title of, “champion,” and the focus of their pay-per-view promotion has been based around those two matches.
The difference between this time and all those other times is that their live event promotion is not based around the sport of fighting, but rather around the spectacle of being live at a 50,000 seat UFC event. In a way, this makes sense. No North American sport (or sports-entertainment) besides football, baseball or auto racing (and even that one is debatable) is capable of putting 50,000 people in a stadium to see a competition. Events like the Manny Pacquiao fights, the Winter Classic (and Heritage Classic), WrestleMania and the Final Four draw fans who want to be part of a happening. They may care about the result of the sport, but their tickets were sold because of the stadium, the outdoor setting or some other accoutrement that has only a tangential relation to competition.
In a way, that is what Jim Ross wants UFC to sell to the people on pay-per-view. Fans in Tacoma can’t bore their grandkids someday with tales of being live at Rogers Centre. They may not care that Georges St. Pierre and Jake Shields are probably going to have a semi-pro level grappling match to unify a championship in a sport where fans typically want submissions or knockouts. What they can participate in is the spectacle of Randy Couture’s last match. The jury is out on whether retirement matches can sell pay-per-view buys on their own (remember that both Flair’s and Michaels’ retirement matches did disappointing pay-per-view numbers), but as an appetizer for a championship match, a promoter could do a lot worse.
Though the author does agree with J.R.’s assessment that it is a mistake to focus such little energy on Couture vs. Machida, it should be noted that the promotion of spectacle over sport does not have a durable history. WrestleMania seems strong today and the Winter Classic will be around for a while, but as events like the Indy 500, Kentucky Derby and Major League Baseball All-Star Game have shown, people eventually get used to the spectacle and start to desire something more substantial. It is great that UFC has just about sold out a football stadium for the spectacle of their first event in Ontario, but running dome shows should remain a secondary pursuit behind the traditional promotion of sporting conflict.