UFC President Dana White was pissed. Just 6,635 people attended his event at the Bank Atlantic Center—a rare box office failure.
Nestled in the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale, the arena is the home of the Florida Panthers. For a center-stage event like the UFC, it's possible to cram between 22,000 and 25,000 people into the building.
The UFC did barely a quarter of that. What to do, he wondered, about South Florida?
"I think it sucked," White told the media at a post-fight press conference. "It's tough down here."
While White blamed Florida, citing the "tough market," some of the blame for the night's attendance failures has to fall on the UFC itself. The card may have featured some exciting action, but what it did not feature was even a single fighter well known to the casual fight fan.
Main-eventers Demetrius Johnson and Ian McCall are new faces to the UFC audience. Between them, they have just three appearances on the main card of a UFC event.
Only Johnson can claim an appearance on pay-per-view. Although competing for a shot at the new flyweight world title, in a real sense, the two have the profile of rising prospects. Neither have the cache to move the crowd, either live or on television.
No one on the card did. Co-main-eventers Erick Silva and Charlie Brenneman also had just three combined main card appearances.
The fighter with the most television exposure was journeyman Josh Neer, a veteran of the sport who has been on eight UFC main cards in the course of his nine-year career.
But Neer is not a name that sells tickets. He only recently returned to the UFC after being bounced from the promotion in 2009 after losing two in a row.
In some ways, this was an entertainment package destined for financial failure. And it shows the challenges the UFC faces as it looks to expand their schedule. There are plenty of young fighters to fill out cards. But marquee fighters are few and far between.
There simply aren't enough main event level fighters to go around, especially if you are looking to fill cavernous 25,000-seat arenas or draw millions on television, where ratings are in a steep decline.
Building these new stars has proven to be an enormous challenge for the promotion reeling from the loss of Brock Lesnar and Georges St-Pierre to retirement and injury, respectively.
Many fans, it seems, view fighters as mostly interchangeable parts. It is a mentality that ensures no one stands out from the crowd. Part of this is a learned behavior. The UFC has worked hard to make it possible for fighters to all be considered equals.
When a fighter goes down with an injury, even a main-eventer, they don't postpone an event like they would in boxing—they just fill in another fighter. Is it any wonder fans don't differentiate between fighters? The UFC doesn't. Why should they?
Let me put it another way—why should UFC fans consider any individual fighter a star worth going out of their way to see? Even in one of the most hyped UFC main events in history, the rematch between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen this July, is there any doubt that if one were injured they would substitute in Michael Bisping or another fighter and go on their merry way?
If even the most important UFC fighters aren't considered more important than the event as a whole, convincing fans that Ian McCall or Erick Silva are worth their hard-earned cash may be an insurmountable obstacle.
There are significant efforts being made to groom the next generation of drawing cards. Erick Silva may be the future in Brazil. Rory MacDonald is a potential successor to GSP in Canada. And Jon Jones carries the hopes and dreams of a whole sport on his shoulders.
That's the big picture. On a micro level, fixing attendance issues at non-PPV events may have a simple solution. It's time to scale these shows back a bit—instead of failures, low-profile events could be part of a nationwide goodwill tour.
Rather than trying and failing in the Miami area, where fans could be offended at the paltry offering of lesser-known fighters, why not bring that same show to a smaller market?
There is a class of mid-market cities, places like Columbia, South Carolina or Montgomery, Alabama, that the promotion has eschewed entirely.
The solution is there. But it's not in Miami. It's in Corpus Christi, Evansville and Topeka. These forgotten towns may be the future home of the UFC's cable television events.
Who wouldn't be excited to have the UFC come to their area for the first time?
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