If the lack of depth on last Saturday’s UFC 106 card didn’t alarm you, it should.
Sure, UFC has a giant roster of fighters that they don’t have to pay unless they fight. However, the talent pool has shrunken considerably over the last year and it’s due in part to injuries and an over-abundance of live events. For MMA fans like you and I, having more shows is fine with us. We love MMA and will watch anything – but we’re also the hardcore fans. We’re not the ones putting our money on the line to promote it.
Overexposure is a big issue for the UFC. The public itself is not tired of UFC, but rather selective in which fights they want to pay for. Certainly, UFC 100 with Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre did great PPV business. BJ Penn vs. Kenny Florian did great business, too, in Philadelphia. However, since mid-August, the company’s business has significantly cooled down after reaching an apex last July. The big question regarding UFC 100 was whether or not it was a preview of how big the sport could get under Zuffa management or whether or not this truly was the mountain top. While the jury may still be out on that answer, the initial signs indicate that the 1.6 millionish PPV buys the company did for UFC 100 was more or less the company’s zenith.
That’s not to say that UFC can’t do monster business internationally in the future. However, as my cohort Jonathan Snowden ably pointed out here on this very site, it is going to take someone like Shane McMahon to significantly increase UFC’s financial viability in international markets. Without someone like him around, the company will continue to find itself more or less in a holding pattern.
The biggest victim of overexposure has been Randy Couture. He fought on August 29th in Portland against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in a very entertaining fight. However, the PPV didn’t do so well in terms of buy rate numbers. Couture recently fought Brandon Vera on Spike and the UFC 105 telecast on Spike TV drew a 1.9 cable rating. That’s not bad at all, but it’s not the kind of number that someone like a Randy Couture would usually put up. Throughout 2009, the UFC audience is becoming more selective about what they want to support, but when they do support something (like Kimbo Slice on The Ultimate Fighter) they do support it and support it passionately.
The catch 22 for UFC is that in order to expand, they have to run more shows in more markets. This has created a wave of television product that has not only taxed the viewers but taxed the company’s employees as well. It takes a toll on the production staff and in many ways UFC is facing a similar problem to what WWE’s production staff faces. Because they are so busy putting up and taking down equipment for shows that it becomes harder and harder to sit back and evaluate what exactly is going on and how to give everything a new face lift when you have a show to put on every 3 or 4 weeks. And ultimately the man responsible for micro-managing the production of UFC is Dana White.
If it appears to you that the man looks tired, you’re not alone. No matter how much energy and passion Dana White has, putting on as many shows as he has done over the last few years takes a toll on you. You are consistently moving from city to city, doing PR one day and promoting a card the next. You have business meetings to get television deals, meetings to expand merchandising lines, and meetings to try to get arenas booked. Plus, you have to deal with all the primadonna egos that comes along with booking fighters and dealing with agents. It’s enough to make a grown man bald… if he had hair in the first place.
November has already been a crazy month for Zuffa management. They had UFC 105 in Manchester, England, and have had to deal with the crippling of Setanta Sports which was the promotion’s flagship station in the UK. After that card, there a WEC event in Las Vegas last week at The Pearl at the Palms. Then on Saturday, we had a card with Forrest Griffin vs. Tito Ortiz. The card was savaged due to injuries and booking cancellations, mainly involving one Brock Lesnar who Dana White couldn’t stop talking about. It was White who drove the news coverage about Lesnar in the media. Without White commenting all the time on Lesnar’s health, nobody in the media would have heard much about what was going on. It was part PR-genius on the part of the UFC President and part panic-attack. You’d have a panic attack, too, if the guy who gave up 1.6 million PPV buys for a show was suffering from intestinal problems and might struggle to fight in the near future.
There will always be injuries in the fight game. There will always be political battles between management and talent. However, the easiest way to minimize this problem is by not running as many shows. UFC finds itself in a position where they have to run a lot of shows in order to keep fighters busy, but it becomes a more difficult task to make new stars and be able to take some time and show some patience in the star-making process when you have to promote a show every three weeks. When most of your time is spent on the road and not at the office, that can be a real challenge.
UFC’s gamble right now is expanding their schedule to run many international shows, shows that in the future it will pay off with big dividends. The problem with that strategy is that it requires talent that is healthy to fight and right now UFC is running out of warm bodies to make the strategy work.