Why the UFC's saturation strategy makes perfect sense

Why the UFC's saturation strategy makes perfect sense

Being sick the past two weeks afforded plenty of time to lounge, uncomfortably, in front of the television. Given that the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women's Open were played at Pinehurst, N.C., during that span, I got to hear over and over (and over and over and over and over) the USGA's public service announcements about growing the game.

It got me thinking about the UFC's long-term strategy with essentially a show a week and sometimes multiple shows in different parts of the world on the same night.

When UFC president Dana White first spoke of the possibility, it sounded as if the concept would be the hardcore fight fan's dream. It quickly proved to be something significantly less, however.

Unlike virtually every other sport, there is no offseason in the UFC. From January through June, July through December, there are fights all the time, in a country or on a continent near you.

On Saturday, the UFC will host two fight cards. One in Auckland, New Zealand, will begin in the early hours of Saturday morning Eastern time and will be streamed live on the UFC's digital streaming service, Fight Pass.

The other show, in San Antonio, will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1 beginning Saturday afternoon Eastern time.

It's going to be about 12 hours or so of fights on Saturday, and yes, there will be a small handful of diehards who will watch both events in their entirety live.

That number, though, will be incredibly small, a number probably far less than one percent of the total fan base.

And though many would hail that as a disaster for the UFC – how can it be good for a company if less than 1 percent of its core audience watches both shows in their entirety, the reasoning goes – it's hardly that.

Nate Marquardt headlines a UFC Fight Pass main card in Auckland, New Zealand, also on Saturday. (Getty)
Nate Marquardt headlines a UFC Fight Pass main card in Auckland, New Zealand, also on Saturday. (Getty)

The dirty little secret here is that the seeming overload of shows the UFC is staging here, there and everywhere was not designed for the hardcore fan base.

The fights are there to be watched for anyone who wants to see them, and the reason these shows are being held is that the UFC, just like the USGA, wants to grow the game.

The USGA's marketing plan to get people playing golf will mean more greens fees and golf ball and golf club sales for courses and manufacturers than if those people never turned their attention toward the sport.

Similarly, the seeming glut of shows the UFC is staging will serve its purpose if it persuades some who watch infrequently or not at all to become casual fans who may, every now and then, buy a pay-per-view.

Of course, it would be better for the hardcore fans if there were fewer shows, not more. Imagine what UFC 175 would be like, for instance, if both the Cub Swanson-Jeremy Stephens match and the B.J. Penn-Frankie Edgar fight were put onto its main card.

Four or five years ago, when the UFC was putting on far fewer shows, that likely would have happened. But because of the exceptional number of shows, Swanson-Stephens is going to headline the Fox Sports 1 card from San Antonio, while Penn-Edgar III will headline The Ultimate Fighter Finale in Las Vegas on July 6, the day after UFC 175.

The success of a pay-per-view show is rarely due to hardcore fans. Promoters in both boxing and mixed martial arts can count upon a reliably consistent number of serious fans to purchase every pay-per-view show. But the difference in one show selling 150,000 pay-per-views and another doing 500,000 is the amount of casual fans it's able to reel in.

White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta are not stupid. They know they'd sell significantly more pay-per-views if the main card was Chris Weidman-Lyoto Machida, Ronda Rousey-Alexis Davis, Penn-Edgar III, Swanson-Stephens and James Tehuna-Nate Marquardt. But they're doing the right thing and making the long-term play.

They lose nothing if they ultimately determine that the market can't bear so many shows. They simply can cut the fat, so to speak, and have fewer shows, in the process adding more star power to the pay-per-view offerings.

If they're right, though, and all that people need to become fans is exposure to the sport on a regular basis, then this is the way to go.

That would then theoretically also lead to the development of more and better fighters. Wider interest among fans would mirror wider interest among athletes, and more quality young athletes turning to MMA now will lead to more stars five, 10 and 15 years down the road.

It's often overwhelming and hard to keep track of what is going on with so many fight cards. The UFC could cut the number of fights from a card, and maybe only stage eight or nine bouts per fight card as opposed to 11 or 12 and make some shows half-marathons instead of having everything be a full marathon.

The important thing here is that no one is forced to subscribe to Fight Pass, which will show the New Zealand card Saturday in its entirety. Nor is anyone forced to watch all six hours of a Fox Sports 1 show or buy a pay-per-view.

Consumers have choices when spending their entertainment dollars. The guy who buys every single pay-per-view has a complaint, because he's the only person the high number of shows really impacts.

But if the tradeoff is more growth and better quality MMA down the road, it's one that most true fans would gladly make.

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