THE BAD YEAR
By Ben Miller
They bought out their last remaining competitor.
They secured a network television deal that more than doubled their broadcast revenues.
One of the best athletes to ever fight won their marquee championship before his 24th birthday.
They had their most disappointing year ever.
So shall read the obituary to the year 2011 for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Blame injuries, blame inflated expectations or blame the beef jerky in Brock’s colon. The facts lay it bare: eleven of the fifteen UFC pay-per-view events of 2010 drew at least 500,000 buys. Two have reached that number so far in 2011. Yes, the economy is down. Yes, SpikeTV is in a freefall. But the fact is that Dana White is at the helm of a cold, declining product. That may sound harsh, but it is reality.
All hope is not lost, of course. In many ways, the fundamentals are strong. MMA is a great sport, and UFC is the undisputed major league brand. Most fans of MMA have great affection for the way UFC runs its business. Several fighters who have been counted on in the past to draw money have been injured or suspended, thus contributing to the decline.
The sunny statements about he product reinforce the idea that UFC will weather the storm. The economy (and Brock’s colon), will recover some day. But there is real question as to whether the heights of 2010 will be reached again any time soon. And there are several disconcerting signs pointing to this being a slower recovery than initially expected.
1: One-sided matchups have become a tough sell. UFC 129: St. Pierre vs. Shields may have been the MMA equivalent of Dow 36000. Knowing that they were running their biggest live event ever, UFC showed hubris in stacking the top of the card with what were largely regarded as mismatches. That show did well, but then came Rampage vs. Hamill, Dos Santos vs. Carwin, Evans vs. Ortiz and Silva vs. Okami. Month after month, UFC put on main events that were destined to be one-sided from the moment the contract was signed. For fans, it’s like being a season ticket holder for Real Madrid, but missing the Barcelona game. These flat matches not only feel like their pay-per-view money was misspent, but they cripple a promotion’s ability to make new superstars.
2: The company feels too corporate-y. America is in a very anti-establishment mood at the moment. Signing with Fox and leaving Spike behind feels in some ways like just another example of the entrenched crushing the upstart. It was cringe-worthy when, in the middle of the conference call to announce the Dos Santos vs. Velasquez UFC on Fox main event, Dana White started talking about a Super Bowl atmosphere in Anaheim. Who wants that? What MMA fan wants to spend their Saturday night at Magic Mountain? MMA is supposed to be the most raw, carnal sport in the world. The UFC experience is supposed to be an arena full of screaming maniacs, not a parking lot with a branded tilt-a-whirl.
3: The executives are in a slump. UFC’s bigwigs seem to be suffering from information overload. They see that companies are leveraging Facebook to build a connection with fans, so they show fights there. They read complaints from fans on the east coast that pay-per-view events end too late, so they move the start time up to 6 p.m. Both of these decisions are defensible, but each is detrimental. They are the types of bullets that are dodged by executives when a company is clicking. A Facebook fight devalues the undercard, because nothing of value ever debuts away from a TV or movie screen. The 6 p.m. start time is an insult to UFC’s most loyal fans on the west coast, and it means that prime time college football games no longer end before the main event fighters walk to the ring. It is no coincidence that the only card to crack 400,000 buys since the start time was moved up was the one headlined by the once-in-a-lifetime Georges St. Pierre fight in a dome.
Add all of this up, and you have a cold product. It may be a long fall and winter for UFC, because if the product is as cold as it appears to be returning champions and network promotion won’t cure it. UFC executives may need to gird themselves to a new reality, at least until new stars get created.
The good news for UFC is that Saturday could be the start of a recovery. Jon Jones fights, and it would help if he and Rampage Jackson engage in an epic battle. And not just a battle of aggression, but a battle of skill, wits and heart that will leave the core fanbase inspired. For if another low ebb does come to pass, the greatness of the sport and of the top fighters will allow business to survive, even in a most disappointing year.