If there is a running theme in mixed martial arts these days, it is that several promotions have the ability to put together good enough cards to rival the industry-leading Ultimate Fighting Championship.
But when it comes to making money on those shows, and long-term staying power, the questions get a lot trickier.
After a slew of major shows in the past several weeks, the cruel reality of the industry has become clear: The quality of fights and fighters really don’t matter in 2008.
The average fan is attracted to stars. Stars can be champion-level fighters like Georges St. Pierre, former pro wrestlers like Brock Lesnar, colorful mid-level fighters like Tito Ortiz, or a well-marketed novice like Kimbo Slice.
And for an event to be a success, it needs strong television promotion.
In the long run, for a promotion to survive, it has to, at the very least, not lose too much money. The past two years were littered with companies starting out with a lot of fanfare and in the end, becoming huge money pits.
Bodog Fight and the International Fight League, the UFC’s big challengers of 2006 and early 2007, are already down for the count after tens of millions of dollars in losses. While some point to UFC’s huge losses from 2001-04 before the company turned the corner, there was a major difference. For one, the sport had nowhere near the level of popularity it has now. In terms of media coverage and general talk, the industry that has grown more than tenfold.
UFC had no weekly television outlet in the down years. Its fortunes turned around immediately upon getting a TV deal with Spike in 2005. Bodog and IFL walked into a far more popular sport with weekly national TV deals. Neither gained any real public interest past the hardcores, didn’t draw ratings and were canceled.
Elite XC's issues
Elite XC has suffered similar losses since its first show 18 months ago. But with deals with both Showtime and CBS, there is at least a potential for a light at the end of the tunnel. The company's second show on CBS Saturday night sent mixed messages. EXC showed it can put on a well received show with good quality fighters. But it also showed that the first show, even drawing a strong audience, didn’t create new stars.
Saturday night’s show in Stockton, Calif., was a sobering reality. The show scored a 1.9 rating and 2.62 million viewers on CBS based on the overnight ratings, down 37 percent and 43 percent respectively from the May 31 debut card.
The third CBS special, scheduled for Oct. 4 from the BankAtlantic Arena in Sunrise, Fla., headlined by Slice and Gina Carano, clearly needs a huge increase from this level, because CBS simply can’t afford those kind of numbers in prime time. As a comparison, on July 19, airing reruns of "The Unit" and "48 Hours Mystery," the Tiffany network averaged 4.35 million viewers in the same time slot.
With mounting losses, even if Elite XC draws numbers on CBS, it has to be able to translate those viewers into pay-per-view buyers in 2009, because the networks aren’t paying enough to sustain operations at this level.
The positive is the show created a scary opponent for Carano in Cris "Cyborg" Santos of Brazil. It’s a great contrast, the American with the big smile against the ferocious, overly muscular foreigner. But the problem is, if Carano loses in devastating fashion, will the American public in big enough numbers care about Santos?
There is also the question as to whether the success of Elite’s first show was the novelty appeal of being the first MMA show live on a major network, and that, like so much in television, it was a nice gimmick with no shelf life.
Can Affliction build momentum?
Affliction, paying huge money to put together a heavyweight division with more top ten fighters than UFC, put together a largely well-received show on July 19 at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Fedor Emlianenko’s win over Tim Sylvia couldn’t have been more impressive, and Andrei Arlovski, who looks to oppose Emelianenko for the unofficial distinction as the No. 1 heavyweight in the world on Oct. 11, looked the best he has in years in finishing Ben Rothwell.
As with any first-time venture, there is a learning curve. The pay-per-view production was weaker than the competition. With a full house of 13,988 fans, darkening the arena took away from the impressiveness of the crowd size. The event came across far better live than on pay-per-view, which didn’t capture the excitement level up-and-down the show. Since it is going to be judged as a television broadcast, that’s a problem that needs to be rectified.
The show’s strength was the matches were good overall, and going forward for the promotion, all the right people won. Those who needed to look impressive, either did so, or at the very least, were impressive in finishing.
Emelianenko, Arlovski, Josh Barnett, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Vitor Belfort, not only won, but won with strong knockout or TKO finishes that brought the house down.
But Affliction has huge hurdles in becoming a long-term factor in this game. Whether the show did in excess of 100,000 buys, as promoter Tom Atencio claims, or 50,000-85,000, which were the earliest cable industry estimates, either way, the losses were in the millions for a show Atencio stated would have needed 250,000-300,000 buys to break even. Atencio has already stated they can’t afford losses like this on a second show, and hinted that the name fighters would have to work with them on some of the huge deals or they won’t be around much longer.
UFC juggernaut rolls on
Chugging along is the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which put up a 2.1 rating and 3.1 million viewers on its July 19 live Spike TV special, which went head-to-head with the Affliction show. The company’s pay-per-view business remains strong and consistent, with the North American shows of late believed to be hovering between 475,000 and 525,000 buys since UFC 84 in late May.
There were two major goals for the show. The first was to hurt Affliction’s pay-per-view numbers, which is debatable, since Affliction appears to have beaten what most in the industry expected they would do.
The second was to build Anderson Silva into a pay-per-view draw. Even though Silva has been UFC’s most impressive fighter of the past year plus, his March match with Dan Henderson drew significantly lower numbers than any North American UFC pay-per-view event this year.
Getting a quick win, and even more, TV commercials promoting the show airing on sports programming for a few weeks leading up to the show, billing Silva as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world had the goal of making him a drawing card.
The test of this will be Oct. 25, when UFC makes its debut at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. Silva won’t have much help, as challenger Patrick Cote, getting a shot at Silva’s middleweight title, barely squeaked by Ricardo Almeida on July 5 in a dull fight and has hardly the star power of Henderson or Rich Franklin, Silva’s recent pay-per-view opponents.
The real big money, and this is the real explanation of Silva’s move to light heavyweight on the Spike special, has to do with his contract and window of opportunity. Silva felt he could have cashed in for a boxing match with Roy Jones Jr. UFC president Dana White wouldn’t allow for the obvious reasons of putting his best fighter in a situation where he could be embarrassed in a high-profile fight by a past-his-prime boxer.
Silva asked to fight more often than the usual UFC rotation of three fights per year for top talent, and with his contract calling for a percentage of pay-per-view revenue, recognized that he’d make more money against light heavyweights. While nothing is signed, and a lot of things would have to break right for it to happen, there is talk internally of Silva vs. Chuck Liddell sometime in 2009, which has potential of being the company’s biggest money fight since 2006.
Across the pond
The same promotional issues are facing the sport in Japan, where MMA became huge in the early part of the decade. The leading promotion, Dream, which has network coverage of its shows, has struggled in the ratings and has struggled to create new stars since the heyday. A torn ACL suffered by Kid Yamamoto, the country's most popular MMA fighter, couldn't have come at a worse time. Current hardcore favorite Shinya Aoki, one of the world's best pound-for-pound grapplers, could not carry the ratings on the July 21 show, and his two tournament matches ended up outdrawn by a one-sided of hated judoka Yoshihiro Akiyama against former pro wrestling star Katsuyori Shibata.
Dream's back isn't up against the wall like Elite XC, but it faces a similar situation to the company for the next show on September 23. Under the gun to draw ratings, the company is attempting to put together middleweight Akiyama against heavyweight Mirko Cro Cop, the country's most popular foreign fighter.