Does the UFC Need to Decide If It Is Sport or Sports Entertainment?

Jeremy BotterMMA Senior WriterDecember 18, 2012

I'll forgive you if you've never heard the term "sports entertainment."

Sports entertainment, after all, is a little ditty composed by Vince McMahon back in the 80s used to describe his then-World Wrestling Federation. Instead of calling themselves professional wrestling—a term McMahon detests to this very day—he opted to use the much more vague-sounding "sports entertainment," thus comparing his product to the high-brow forms of entertainment coming out of Hollywood.   

But despite the name change, the point of pro wrestling is still the same as it ever was: build up stars to the point where people at home are willing to pay to see them, at the arena or live on pay-per-view television. That sounds a little bit more familiar, doesn't it?   

We've gone through the historical connections between sports entertainment and mixed martial arts in the past, so I'm not going to rehash it all here. And besides, all of that information can be found in my colleague Jonathan Snowden's book Total MMA, which is a highly-recommended read.   

But suffice to say that there are plenty of similarities between what Vince McMahon does in order to build up his monthly pay-per-view events and what Dana White does in order to build up his UFC events. 

And that's okay by me. As long as the UFC is a company driven forward by pay-per-view success, it's going to be reliant upon building up pay-per-view stars. There's nothing wrong with that. And lately, it seems like the UFC is just a little bit better at being the WWE than the WWE itself is.

I'm not trying to offend the delicate sensibilities of my hardcore readers. This is just the way of the world. 

Look at Nick Diaz inexplicably getting a title shot "because Georges wants it and Georges is a good company guy who never asks for anything." Look at Chael Sonnen bypassing roughly four different light heavyweight contenders who were all promised title shots but then overlooked when it came time to make a decision that might help save The Ultimate Fighter's flagging ratings. And look at Ronda Rousey being given what might be generously called an easy fight in order to cushion the landing of her first UFC pay-per-view main event.

It's money, and money talks. Again, this is the way of the world, or at least the way of the UFC (and WWE): If you don't put people on your shows that folks will pay to see, well, you're not going to have your own shows for very long. Just ask every other MMA company that could not (or would not) figure out this very simple formula quickly enough to stay afloat.

But here's the real question: Can the UFC continue operating with this model indefinitely? Cable-industry experts I've talked to believe they cannot, and not because they're doing something wrong. Rather, it's because the future of cable, home television, the Internet and the intersection of those moving parts looks very different than it does today.

The future of the UFC, I think, resides on network television. Seven years from now, I think you'll see all of the UFC's biggest and baddest events airing on Fox. Of course, that idea hinges on the UFC signing a new rights deal with FOX that pays them a whole heck of a lot more than they're currently getting. After all, the current deal is pretty nice, but it pales in comparison to the rights packages typically paid out for other sports.

But what happens if the UFC can, from television rights deals, get the kind of revenue they're currently generating on a yearly basis on pay-per-view? Then pay-per-view falls by the wayside, and the UFC becomes a more traditional sporting company.

And if the UFC is more of a traditional sporting company, they're going to need to ensure that they don't do things that make traditional sports fans give you quizzical looks. Things like Nick Diaz getting a title shot coming off a loss and a suspension for a drug-test failure or Chael Sonnen getting a title shot coming off a loss in a weight class he hasn't competed at in years. These are not the kind of things that make sense to your typical sporting fan.

Hell, they don't even make that much sense to me, and I fully understand why they're doing it.

My point in all of this is that there is a very fine line between delivering big fights that the fans want to see and going over the top, pro-wrestling style, in a way that will keep actual sports fans (and their much-coveted wallets) away from your product in droves.

It can't be easy for Dana White, Lorenzo Fertitta or anyone else at the Zuffa offices to make these kinds of decisions. Especially not today, given the Red Hot Chili Peppers played the Zuffa Christmas Party in Las Vegas last night, and those parties are known to look like a war zone when they're completed.

White, Fertitta and company do a good job of balancing entertainment and sports, but it's something they need to be even more vigil about as the UFC heads into its second year with broadcasting partner Fox. Because if the "sports" falls by the wayside in favor of big and bombastic "sports entertainment," well, there may not be a future at all.