5 Big-Picture Issues Facing the UFC
For years, we've heard about how the UFC is the fastest-growing sports enterprise in the world. It's a story of remarkable success, as two brothers and a friend from high school built one of sport's best brands.
However, the UFC has hit a road block. Pay-per-view sales are in decline. The promotion's big television deal with Fox has led to anemic ratings. The sport's biggest star, Brock Lesnar, went scurrying back to pro wrestling after consecutive losses.
It's not a good time to be the UFC. Even as the sport grows internationally, it faces immense challenges on the home front. These are the five issues that will make or break the UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts over the course of the next decade.
Spotted another issue? Let me know about it in the comments.
1. Ratings Woes on Fox
I'll confess to being wrong. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's in a major way. My painful confession? I thought for certain that the UFC would be a major hit on Fox.
The mainstream, in my mind, was finally primed and ready for cage fighting. The UFC had built the sport on Spike and taken it as far as they could within the confines of an obscure cable channel. The time to take things to the next level was now.
The culture was seemingly inured to violence of all kinds in popular media, and the sport was just too good to fail. Once you watch it—truly watch it and process what is happening in the cage—you can never go back to the simpler times when MMA wasn't a major part of your life.
That was my mindset at least, and that of many of the people in my insular online circle.
It turns out, though, that that isn't the case. Most people were perfectly able, even willing, to turn on a fight (they did so in huge numbers for the inaugural event on Fox) and then shrug their shoulders and let out a tepid "eh."
The first show on Fox was a bona fide hit. The second, headlined by Rashad Evans and Chael Sonnen fights, did a solid number. And then the bottom fell out: The third and fourth cards on Fox drew less than half as many viewers as the debut.
The numbers, to be frank, were abysmal. To put it in perspective, more people watched every Elite XC show on CBS back in 2008—even the disaster headlined by Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith—than watched the last two free UFC shows. And Elite XC was a second-rate promotion that failed in every conceivable way.
It's not all doom and gloom. The UFC frequently wins the fight for the key young male demographic, and there is still hope for an overall ratings resurgence.
The UFC is bringing out the big guns for its fifth show on Fox. Benson Henderson and Nate Diaz will headline in a lightweight title scrap, and BJ Penn and "Shogun" Rua will provide much-needed support underneath.
More importantly, the show will once again be advertised heavily during Fox NFL broadcasts. The football audience was a key factor in the first and most successful event on Fox and will likely play a key roll again.
“Last October, it was a big deal that UFC was being promoted inside of an NFL game,” Fox Sports President Eric Shanks told Sherdog.com in an interesting interview worth reading in full. "[It] had never been done before. We haven’t had the NFL weight to promote since then."
With the NFL push, I expect a big rebound for the fifth show on Fox. But it may turn out that MMA has a "season" after all, at least as a mainstream product. And that season is football season.
2. PPV Struggles
At one point, a UFC PPV was something special. Up and down the card, well-known fighters would compete in what the UFC labeled "the Super Bowl of mixed martial arts."
Those days are ancient history. The recent UFC 151 debacle highlighted what was already an issue increasingly in the spotlight: the lack of depth on UFC pay-per-view cards.
Today, fans are lucky if there are two high-profile fights on an average pay-per-view. Sometimes, there aren't even that many. That was the case for UFC 151, where the co-main event featured Jake Ellenberger and Jay Hieron.
Ellenberger is one of the nameless and faceless masses, a group of talented fighters that are virtually interchangeable. Hieron hasn't competed in the UFC since 2005. The idea of them moving into the main event slot was untenable. When Dan Henderson's injury and Jon Jones' recalcitrance cost the promotion a title fight, it also cost us all the entire card.
The decline in quality, as might be expected, has led to a decline in sales. The UFC PPV is broken and in danger of becoming an anachronism. The solution is simple—fewer cards.
A bump in quality will make each and every show special. Otherwise, the UFC is on the same path the WWE has taken. That means a baseline of hardcore fans who buy every card and just a handful of mega-events that reach the masses.
That's not a good place to be. The UFC needs to revitalize a dying PPV industry or face major problems with their core business. And unlike the WWE, UFC doesn't have the diverse revenue streams with which to make up the difference between a good and bad year at the box office.
I'm not sure what the solution might be for the rash of injuries that has hammered the UFC in recent years. MMA is a full-contact sport, and injuries will always be just part of the game. But I think the sport and its athletes could do a better job of taking care of themselves.
In other major league sporting enterprises, a professional medical staff is key to the athlete's survival. Coaches and others keep a careful watch over their charges, hoping to minimize injuries during training.
The idea of a football player, for example, being injured during a practice or in the training room in the middle of the season is almost unthinkable. It's almost never an issue in boxing or kickboxing either. Yet it happens in MMA with a startling regularity.
Bloody Elbow's Fraser Coffeen thinks it's built into MMA's tough guy culture:
The trouble is, it's a problem that may be impossible to fix. This idea of going full speed in training is built into the very fabric of MMA. Let's not forget that the sport was founded by a family who went into rival gyms and beat up the competition. Many of the earliest MMA training camps took a great deal of pride in their notoriously brutal training, with Brazil's Chute Boxe andLion's Den being two notable examples. For Chute Boxe, they came up in Brazil under the long shadow of the Gracie family and their reputation as tough guys. For his part, Shamrock came up in pro wrestling - another place where brutal, injury-laden training is a long tradition.
These early camps have passed that mentality down, and it is now the norm in MMA training. But can you get rid of it? Like weight cutting in wrestling, if it's seen as giving an advantage, it is here to stay - once one team realizes there is an advantage in cutting weight, then all are forced to follow suit or be left behind. The same is true here.
The first step towards solving this problem is getting a fighter's total team together and on the same page. A fighter too often has different coaches for each aspect of his game: a wrestling coach, a jiu jitsu coach, a boxing coach and a strength and conditioning coach. These coaches are rarely interconnected, each often doing their own thing independent of all the others.
That means a fighter could be putting stress on the same body parts and joints several times a day instead of getting some much-needed rest. Eventually, the body simply breaks down. Although it's not a complete solution, more careful coordination would go a long way towards solving what ails many fighters in the sport.
4. Building Stars
I read an interesting column by Spencer Kyte earlier this year that, with due respect, highlighted what's wrong with the UFC's matchmaking and promotional process. Kyte, seemingly channeling UFC brass, doesn't believe there are a lack of stars in the UFC—fans just aren't smart enough to recognize them:
In my opinion, the problem isn’t with the UFC ability to generate stars — it’s with the unwillingness of fans to accept the stars who are already on the UFC roster that’s the issue.
The problem, in other words, isn't the UFC—it's us. They've given us stars. We just don't appreciate them enough.
That's hogwash. A fighter doesn't become a star because Joe Silva or Dana White put them in the main event and wave a magic wand over their head. They become a star because fans accept them and want to pay to watch them fight. If that's not the case, they aren't stars. Period.
It's a problem that has plagued the UFC for several years. Since Georges St-Pierre burst onto the scene, the UFC hasn't had much luck creating a new pay-per-view draw. Rashad Evans can draw with the right opponent, as can Chael Sonnen. But since 2006, really only Jon Jones has emerged as a potential box office superstar.
Is it possible to recreate the "Jon Jones Formula"? That's going to be tough for anyone. After all, Jones is arguably the best young fighter in the entire history of the sport. But his path can be mimicked—the progression from hot undercard attraction to television main eventer to PPV star.
For most fighters, however, it would require careful matchmaking to make it work. The sport is so unpredictable that it's hard for a fighter to maintain any momentum when a loss is just one haymaker away.
I have some additional thoughts here about just how a matchmaker could build a fighter up into a legitimate superstar.
5. Failure to Adapt
The UFC has built a management team that has done great things. One of its greatest strengths is the comfort level of most key executives. In fact, since they plucked Chief Marketing Officer Bryan Johnston from Burton Snowboards in 2009, the main UFC brass has been remarkably static.
It's an incredible success story. Together, this team has built a billion-dollar industry from nothing. And that's both a good thing and a bad thing, at least when it comes to future performance.
The company's success is undeniable, but it's that success that has led them to be reticent to change. Because they are the most successful MMA promoters ever and the most successful combat sports promoters in a generation, the mantra inside the Zuffa offices—and the response to any criticism—is simple and dismissive: We know what we are doing.
The UFC does know what it is doing. Or what it was doing. But life is change. The sports landscape is changing at a rapid pace. The UFC has to be prepared to change with it, even if that change necessitates a change in strategy.