Coker the man behind Strikeforce’s curtain
This is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen every day. Or every year. Or even every decade.
Scott Coker was 21, teaching martial arts near his Northern California home and not sure what he planned to do with the rest of his life. But he had a passion for taekwondo, enjoyed what he was doing and, like many young adults, wasn’t particularly concerned at the time with where life was leading.
He was instructing in an otherwise typical day at his gym when one of his students, an employee of Coors Brewery, told him that Coors was looking to sponsor professional kickboxing events that were being broadcast on ESPN.
The man asked Coker if he’d like to give it a try. It didn’t take long for Coker to say yes, even though he’d never promoted a fight card, never negotiated a fighter contract, never worked out a television rights deal and had not the first clue what to do about securing a venue.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Coker says. “It was definitely a baptism by fire.”
After all the receipts were counted and all the bills were paid for that first show, Coker was left with a profit of $10,000.
“And believe me when I tell you, I thought I was rich,” Coker said, chuckling.
Nearly 25 years later, he’s still not rich, but he’s become one of the country’s most successful mixed martial arts promoters. Coker’s company, Strikeforce, is the one promotion outside industry-leading Zuffa LLC able to lure world-class talent and still survive.
The International Fight League was created several years ago amid much fanfare and with predictions that it would be the company to surpass the industry-leading Ultimate Fighting Championship. But after all the hype, the IFL collapsed, its stock value dipped to two cents a share (from a high of about $15) and it’s all but legally dead now.
Elite XC was born in 2007 and became the first MMA promoter to land a deal with a premium cable channel when it reached a deal with Showtime. That was a precursor to an even bigger deal, when about 15 months later it became the first MMA company to secure a contract with one of the four major broadcast networks, CBS.
But only 18 months after its much-hyped debut, Elite XC is $50 million in the hole and its future is bleak.
Affliction ran a heavily promoted show in July that was a critical success, but which lost thousands of dollars, if not into the millions.
The San Jose, Calif-based Coker, though, manages to chug along, putting on quality cards that are routinely profitable.
“Scott has a great understanding of the business, and I think that’s where these other guys fall short,” said Frank Shamrock, a Strikeforce fighter and one of the greats in MMA history. “They don’t know the business and they don’t know the people in it. They come in and they overspend and they upset people. They start cliques and antagonize people and get distracted from the business.
“Scott’s secret is that he doesn’t get out there fighting with people. He sits down with you and says, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can do business together and help each other out.’ He’s a square dude. If he can do something for you or with you, he will. If he can’t, he’ll tell you why.”
Coker’s ego is such that he doesn’t feel the need to try to outdo another promoter. He simply wants to run a business, turn a profit and put on a good show.
Unlike nearly every other major promoter, he hasn’t incurred the wrath of the UFC or its outspoken president, Dana White.
White, who was 16 when Coker began promoting kickboxing, was effusive in his praise of Coker.
“This sport needs more guys like Scott Coker,” White said. “He puts on a good show and I think if you talked to his fighters about him, they’d all have good things to say.”
Those words are in sharp contrast to his comments about other promoters. He derisively refers to Affliction’s Tom Atencio as “that t-shirt guy.” He says, “I thought Elite XC was the (stuff) Anna Nicole Smith was taking when she died.” And he simply chortles at the problems the IFL has endured.
“It was a stupid concept that I told you would never work,” White said of the IFL’s team MMA plan.
Coker has managed to stay on the mercurial White’s good side, as well as on the good side of most who know and work with him, by simply being a good guy.
Talk to him for 10 minutes and you quickly understand the passion he has for the game and the business.
“It’s really all about networking and building good relationships,” Coker said of his business strategy. “I have a long martial arts background and I have relationships with a lot of people in this business that go back many, many years. And I’m in an area of the country where martial arts is huge.
“There are a lot of gyms with great, world-class talent here in my area. I have relationships with all of those places and the people there and it helps to be able to run a business.”
Strikeforce has landed a late-night show that airs on NBC on Saturdays and which has delivered far better than expected ratings. The half-hour show, which airs between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., depending upon the market, routinely draws more viewers than live broadcasts of the boxing matches in much better time slots on ESPN2.
Coker occasionally branches outside the Bay Area to promote. He has a Sept. 20 card at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills, the second straight year he’s run a show from the venerable location, and an Oct. 3 card in Broomfield, Colo. A February card in Tacoma, Wash. set a state record for combat sports with a gate of about $300,000.
But he primarily sticks to the Bay Area, where he set a since-surpassed North American attendance record by drawing 18,265 to the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., for a card featuring a fight between Shamrock and Cesar Gracie.
“I’m not surprised by anything Scott does, because he’s that good at this,” Shamrock said. “He’s been around 20-plus years and everyone in the business knows him and respects him. He has the ability to go not only national with this thing, but international, if he wants. He knows talent and he knows how to put together a fight.
“Just throwing a ton of money at it doesn’t work. Just hiring a million people doesn’t work. People want a good product and they want value for their money and that’s what they get from Strikeforce. That’s all because of what Scott Coker does.”