Can the IFL turn things around?

Can the IFL turn things around?
By Dave Meltzer, Yahoo Sports
November 2, 2007

Dave Meltzer
Yahoo Sports
There's a saying about never getting a second chance to make a first impression. The International Fight League is heavily banking they can prove that saying wrong Saturday.

The beginning of the new era of the IFL, under the helm of Jay Larkin, the man who was synonymous for years with boxing on Showtime, starts with the IFL World Grand Prix tournament at the Sears Center in Chicago, the company's first live television show. The show will include eight semifinal matches in four different weight classes, headlined by the crowning of the company's first champion in the light heavyweight division.

A few of the matches, including the title match, will air on a one-hour live special on MyNetwork TV at 9 p.m. ET. and also on FOX Sports World Canada, as a two-hour live show at 9 ET.

It was only a few months ago when the IFL looked primed to be the Avis to the UFC's Hertz, which is Larkin's avowed goal. After a "60 Minutes" feature that portrayed mixed martial arts as an emerging sport, and perhaps the next NASCAR, the IFL’s stock soared to $17 per share, giving it a market cap more than most of the successful professional sports teams in the country. This was for a league that had yet to develop any substantial revenue streams. Headed by Wizard World founder Gareb Shamus, the league raised enough capital for a full season of events held at major arenas throughout the U.S. They secured television contracts with MNTV for a two-hour prime time show on Monday, to be repeated on Saturdays, and a secondary deal for Friday nights on FoxSports Net.

They put together a roster of 12 teams, coached by some of the most famous MMA pioneers like Ken Shamrock, Pat Miletich, Bas Rutten, Marco Ruas, Don Frye, Frank Shamrock, Renzo Gracie, Igor Zinoviev, Maurice Smith, Carlos Newton, Matt Lindland and, at one point, Japanese wrestling icon and MMA producer Antonio Inoki.

The coaches include several early champions in the UFC. They offered mid-level fighters, many of whom would be lucky to earn $1,000 per fight, full-time contracts – most would make close to $50,000, and the best fighters had a chance to hit six figures. The coaches, cut in for a piece of the stock, were suddenly millionaires on paper.

They promised a pure sports league, with shorter, more TV-friendly four-minute rounds, a ring instead of a cage, and eliminated elbows to cut down on the blood loss.

The first MNTV airing, on March 12th, was an outright disaster. Built on the premise that more was better, they tried to sell the show on the idea you'd see 11 fights, which were simply too many. The fights were heavily edited, fearing the audience would change the channel if they saw extended ground work. Worse, from the start of the first episode, and throughout the two hours, the announcer kept saying that before the show is over, "Somebody is leaving on a stretcher." Trying to sell MMA as extreme violence backfired on UFC more than a decade ago and nearly left the sport dead in North America by the late ‘90s.

Due to the terrible feedback, commissioner Kurt Otto was quick to apologize and the show continually changed its format. For weeks, they built around a search for the next ring card girl, a cheesy exercise taken from the WWE's “Diva Search” segments, and actually made the wrestling version look classy in comparison. Instead of match highlights, they eventually changed the show to a team vs. team best-of-five series, airing matches in their entirety, and pushed the personalities of the fighters. By the time they reached that format, they had lost viewers who never came back. The team concept never truly resonated and the matches aired weeks, sometimes months, after they had been taped.

They did understand the need to create personalities. They pushed, in particular, 6-foot-5, 260 pound knockout artist "Big" Ben Rothwell and 19-year-old lightweight Chris "The Polish Hammer" Horodecki, who specializes in fast and accurate kicks. However, Rothwell failed to sign a contract to compete in the Grand Prix. There were some great matches, true team spirit, colorful coaches, hot crowds in certain markets, and a Horodecki vs. Shad Lierley match on June 1 in Seattle that was as exciting as any MMA match of 2007. The IFL also had a unique bragging point: No IFL fighter in 2007 failed a drug test. Some credit the team concept, with peer pressure from coaches and fighters, with that distinction.

A rematch of a Horodecki (10-0) vs. Bart Palaszewski (28-9) match that was among the best fights of the year in a lightweight semifinal will be one of two matches guaranteed to air on Saturday night. Horodecki, returning after four months from an injury in the Lierley fight, won a very close decision on Feb. 2 in Houston. The winner of that match goes for the championship on Dec. 29 against the winner of Wagnney Fabiano (7-1) vs. John Gunderson (15-4).

A light heavyweight champion will be crowned in a battle of former UFC fighters. Due to injuries and a contract dispute knocking several contenders out, they were left with Vladimir Matyushenko (19-3) vs. Alex Schoenauer (12-8). Matyushenko, a former world class wrestler from Belarus, is a former UFC fighter who lost to Tito Ortiz via decision in a light heavyweight championship match on the UFC's first pay-per-view after getting back on cable in late 2001. Schoenauer was a contestant on the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show in 2005.

The first Monday night show had 1.12 million viewers, a decent number that was slightly above the network's prime time average. They drew a heavy emphasis on males 18-34, the network's target group. Not a bad starting point if they built from there. But that's not what happened. The audience steadily declined. By the time the 2007 team championship match aired on Sept. 24, only 730,000 watched Gracie's New York Pitbulls beat Miletich's Quad Cities Silverbacks win the championship. After that, the four hours in prime time was cut down to one, at 9 p.m. on Saturday night. This past Saturday night, admittedly a harder night to draw, they were down to 362,000 viewers on a 0.26 rating. Worse, the average age of the predominately male viewership was 49, nearly two decades older than the UFC young male audience they coveted.

With losses of $13.8 million in the first six months of the year, the stock has plummeted to 35 cents per share. One team, the San Jose Razorclaws headed by Frank Shamrock, was dropped, and it's unlikely to be the only one.

Larkin noted all sports leagues are going to lose money with startup costs, and that the current owners of UFC lost $44 million over four years before turning a profit. But UFC struggled until getting its Spike TV deal, and then its fortunes turned around immediately. IFL had a national small network deal in its first full year.

"We're a brand new company and a work in progress," said Larkin. "What worked last year may not be what works this year."

What may be more important is figuring out what didn't work. Larkin felt part of the problem in the Internet age is that the shows have to air live. That's why Saturday night looks to be crucial to show a sign of life for the company. The championship finals, featuring the winners from Saturday, on Dec. 29 from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., are not yet scheduled live, and the ratings this week will likely influence the decision. If it goes live, it will have competition from the PPV of arguably UFC's strongest show of 2007. The IFL's goal for the 2008 regular season, which starts in March, is to run live two-hour shows, either on Friday or Saturday night. They are in talks with MNTV for such a deal, but no contract has been signed.

Larkin, with a boxing background, was also negative on the team format, but has since changed his views. But he felt the current format, with teams from various cities, many of which never even had a home match, didn't work. The New York Pitbulls and Toronto Dragons, for example, are based in cities where the sport is still banned. He felt touring the country, trying to run in the major markets, was too costly. He also felt the superfights, using name fighters – often the coaches – were too costly and didn't sell enough tickets to be cost effective. He's reviewing a deal that was discussed with pro wrestler and former Olympic gold-medal winner Kurt Angle to be an assistant coach, to determine whether it makes economic sense. He felt their first priority has to be with the shareholders, and run the league next year while cutting back expenses as much as possible.

"It's okay to make mistakes, but it's not okay to perpetuate them," Larkin said. "We have to evolve. Every new league is going to lose money starting out. If you compare us with the UFC in its first year-and-a-half, we aren't doing badly."

He categorized the first year growing pains as a success in laying a foundation. Live attendance grew even as ratings declined, peaking with a $345,000 house for an August show at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, NJ. But the company was averaging more than $1 million in expenses per live event, and their main TV contract only paid them $50,000 for a new show and $20,000 every time it repeated.

The big changes start Saturday with tournaments to create IFL champions in five weight classes. During 2008, all five champions will be defending their championships when the new season beings with a revamped team format with heavy emphasis put on the individual title matches.

Instead of teams from cities, they will be renamed based on camps. The changes are minor from the outside. The Quad Cities Silverbacks become the Miletich Fighting Systems team. The Southern California Condors become Ruas Vale Tudo. The New York Pitbulls become Renzo Gracie Jiu Jitsu. The Reno Lions becomes Ken Shamrock's Lions Den. The coaches will pick fighters from their schools, and there may be changes in how contracts are done, since Larkin doesn't favor either multi-fight or exclusive deals.

"It's more organic and more honest as to what we are." Larkin said.

They will also have three or four home-base arenas that they will run regularly throughout the year. It saves on constantly having to market in new cities and allows them to build a local fan base.

As for the cage, which is the accepted fighting surface to millions of MMA fans weaned on the "Ultimate Fighter", Larkin is leaning against it.

"As a TV producer, I don't like it," he said. "It's difficult with the cage for a good clean camera shot. I have a visceral gut reaction against the cage but a lot of people are drawn to it, so I'm not ruling it out."

The remainder of Saturday's show: The welterweight semifinals pit Delson Heleno (12-3) vs. Gideon Ray (14-6-1) and Jay Hieron (12-4) vs. Pat Healy (18-11). The middleweight semifinals have Benji Radach (16-3) vs. Brent Beauparlant (6-4) and Matt Horwich (19-9-1) vs. Brian Foster (9-11). The heavyweight semifinals have Antoine Jaoude (7-2) vs. Shane Ott (3-1) and Roy Nelson (8-2) vs. Bryan Vetell (3-2).

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 on Friday, Nov 2, 2007 12:30 pm, EDT

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