Elite XC’s future could rest on Kimbo’s shoulders

Less than three months ago, Elite XC was celebrating the most-watched mixed martial arts event ever in North America, the sport’s debut on CBS featuring Kimbo Slice.

Today, numerous questions are being asked about the future of the company, which canceled two shows in the past week and had several internal layoffs and the resignations of key officers over the last month.

And just as the first network television show on May 31 was a key event in MMA history, the third show, featuring Kimbo’s next match on Oct. 4, seems just as important.

The Sept. 20 Showtime event scheduled for Albuquerque, N.M., was canceled on Friday, just days after the card was announced. In addition, a show called Cage Rage Contenders, run out of the company’s London, England, Cage Rage promotion, scheduled for last weekend was canceled just days ahead of time.

A filing on Monday with the Securities and Exchange Commission noted the company was spending significant time and resources to raise up to $3 million in new financing. Company filings also state the promotion has lost about $30 million since its debut show in early 2007.

But the filing notes that even if the financing closes, and if the company makes significant reductions in expenses, the new funding would only be sufficient to carry the company through the end of the year.

Amidst all this, Elite XC has a show that simply needs to draw ratings on CBS from the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla. Slice (3-0) is scheduled against an opponent to be named, and Gina Carano (6-0) is expected to face Kelly Kobold-Gavin (16-2).

After ratings dropped 43 percent for the second CBS show on July 26, built on providing championship matches and action fights, the hope is the Slice and Carano, the main draws for the first show, will bring the numbers back up. Elite XC and CBS have one more event after this remaining on their contract.

Elite is in a precarious position having to rely on two stars, particularly Slice, as the key to its future. Slice has a new television commercial for Nike with NFL star LaDainian Tomlinson and is a huge Internet celebrity from YouTube videos. There is a great curiosity about seeing him fight.

But he’s also 34, inexperienced, and struggled to beat journeyman James Thompson on the first CBS show. Unless he shows incredible improvement in record time, there is likely to be a short shelf life in fascination with him.

While the company was criticized for headlining him on the first show, after the drop in ratings when trying to promote better fighters, there is little alternative at this time.

The only opponent that would come close to guaranteeing good ratings is Tito Ortiz, who in the past had talked of being willing to move to the heavyweight division to face Slice. But it doesn’t appear they have the money to afford Ortiz, who hasn’t made a deal with the high-spending Affliction promotion due to the sides being well apart financially.

There also has been a mass exodus of front office staff, including Gary Shaw, who had been the public face of the promotion since its inception, and Doug DeLuca, the chairman of the board, who had been directing the business end. Both resigned days before the last CBS/Showtime card in Stockton, Calif., although it wasn’t made public until after the event. Other employees were let go in the days before the show. More employees were gone last week, the most notable was Patrick Freitas, who worked as a matchmaker for their Hawaii-based Icon Sports promotion.

DeLuca, just before his resignation, noted that television was not paying enough to sustain the company. That’s a key reason why Elite XC ended up on CBS in the first place. The network had been in serious talks with UFC, but UFC didn’t feel the terms were acceptable, even with all the advantages of network prestige and potential increases in viewership.

The CBS deal calls for a $1 million stock purchase every time they televise a show, and an undisclosed but smaller rights fee. DeLuca noted the only way to sustain the promotion long-term is to be successful on pay-per-view, which up to this point nobody in the MMA business has been able to make work financially except UFC.

Elite XC company had talked about doing a pay-per-view early next year, but it’s hard to put together a lineup that would work with UFC dominating that marketplace with monthly shows.

To keep Slice alive as the draw they need him to be, they can’t afford to match him with any top-level fighters. His best bet for TV ratings purposes would be past-their-prime pioneers such as Ken Shamrock or Don Frye. But at some point, the public would see through such one-sided matchups.

The difficulties in finding a match for Slice underscores a Rubik’s cube like puzzle in the sport, and that is, exactly what does it take to consistently draw and keep viewers?

The wide variances in television ratings in recent months for not only Elite XC, but also World Extreme Cagefighting, have to have all promoters of the game concerned. The lesson seems to be that if a show is hyped big enough and has the right stars or the right big match, it can be very successful on television. But just putting good MMA matches on television isn’t enough, and as for building an audience base by putting on good shows, it doesn’t seem to matter.

The 1.7 rating for Elite XC’s July 26 card, which even in the Saturday night wasteland for television is unacceptable for a major network, underscored a long-term problem. Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith had a great action fight on the first CBS show for the middleweight title, which ended controversially when Smith was poked in the eye and ruled unable to continue. A rematch on the second show, which Lawler won by knockout, promised similar action and delivered.

The second show promised far better action than the first, but the casual fan who makes the difference in ratings didn’t care. Even worse, the event was not just a CBS show. The first hour aired on Showtime, a primary owner of the company, including a match where Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva beat Justin Eilers to become the company’s first heavyweight champ.

It only drew a 0.7 rating, the lowest yet for a major Showtime event.

WEC suffered a similar lesson on Aug. 3. Its prior show on June 1, featuring a much-hyped Urijah Faber featherweight title defense over Jens Pulver, did a 1.4 rating, one of the largest audiences in the history of the Versus network. The show delivered with the main event and bantamweight champ Miguel Angel Torres’ win over Yoshiro Maeda being two of the year’s best matches.

The company, which has always delivered as far as show quality, came back last week and fell to what was the company’s average rating before June with a 0.5 rating. The message seemed to be if a match is hyped to death and has the right personalities, like Faber vs. Pulver, they can draw a big audience. But even with all those new viewers that were likely satisfied, few came back to see Carlos Condit, Brian Stann and Jamie Varner all defend championships.

The next show, on Sept. 10, pits Faber vs. Mike Brown. Brown (19-4, but only one loss as a featherweight)is a powerhouse at 145 pounds, but is unknown to all but the most ardent fan.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Aug 18, 2008