MMA: Could the UFC Eventually Suffer the Same Fate as HBO Boxing?

Levi NileContributor IIIJanuary 20, 2014

December 14, 2013; Sacramento, CA, USA; UFC president Dana White addresses the media during the press conference after UFC on FOX 9 at Sleep Train Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, Jonathan Snowden wrote an excellent piece on the current battle that is being waged between Showtime and HBO for the heart of boxing.

Reading it reminded me of the near stranglehold HBO had on the sport for many, many years. All the biggest names and talents fought on HBO for well over 20 years. Men like Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr., Julio Cesar Chavez, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Marco Antonio Barrera, Arturo Gatti, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao were but a few of the stars who named the network home.

Meanwhile, Showtime continued to put on fights as best they could in the shadow of HBO, subsisting on meaningful fights where they could. And then things began to change—quickly.

Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Floyd Mayweather Jr.Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

Many of HBO’s biggest names began to retire; that was the first domino to fall. Then, Mayweather decided he would take his talents, and his name, to Showtime thanks to a lucrative deal that was simply too good to pass up.

Showtime put their money where their mouth was, and it paid off.

Granted, HBO was still the top name for boxing in 2013, but thanks to the acquisition of Mayweather, Showtime is closing the gap quickly.

By the end of 2014, Showtime may very well be equal to their rival, and thanks to their recent partnership with Golden Boy Promotions, they might even take the lead.

As a longtime fan of both boxing and MMA, it has left me wondering if the UFC could suffer a similar fate.

Sound far-fetched? I will agree that in a way it does, but only if you ignore that the UFC has proven to the world that there is a great deal of money to be made in the sport of MMA.

What if Viacom, the parent company of Bellator, decided to invest just a small fraction of their money toward the end of throwing their hat into the cage? I’m not talking about Bellator; I am talking about a big move that sees them spending a lot of money (by MMA standards) while utilizing their connections with CBS, Comcast and others.

At that point, Bellator would become the equivalent of an in-house farm league for new talent.

UFC stars like Jon Jones, for instance, who have not always had good relationships with Dana White, could be lured away at their contract's end if Viacom decided to outspend the UFC.

And outspend them they could, if they were of a mind to.

Now, imagine if they acquired not only Jones, but also Nick and Nate Diaz and any other UFC fighters who have butted heads with White and Zuffa? If you take it one step further, a Viacom-backed company—significantly backed—could lure many fighters from the UFC stable simply by paying them considerably more and putting them on a very big stage.

There are more than a few fighters who have complained of the UFC’s low pay scale; to assume they would stay with the UFC for smaller purses if the competition is negotiating hard isn’t realistic.

And the more fighters this Viacom promotion gathered, the more the word would spread, leading not only to more “defections,” but to a growing presence among newer fighters on the verge who have yet to be discovered by the UFC.

As unlikely as it may sound, this exact same thing happened to the UFC before, pre-Zuffa. The owners of Pride basically strip-mined the UFC in the early days and used those big names to lure in newer, promising fighters who eventually went on to become stars.

Pride showed them the money and they jumped ship, simple as that.

Add to that any feelings of unhappiness that come from the heavy-handed approach that White and Zuffa employ with their fighters, and the possibilities become clear.

What remains unknown is just how much money Zuffa would be willing to spend to keep their fighters; would they be willing to get into a bidding war with another promotion that has more money to spend?

Obviously, that depends on the name of the fighter.

It’s hard to believe they would let a fighter like Jones slip from their fingers at the bargaining table unless they believe their name and their brand is really what is most important. Would they let their big-name fighters go, believing that the UFC brand would survive all, as it has in the past?

The UFC has seen many a rival come and go, many times due to their own inexperience and inability to consistently subscribe to a fiscally sound budget. It’s happened so many times that they may honestly believe that no other promotion, no matter how well-funded, will last more than a few years.

When considering companies like Viacom know all about attaining growth while keeping a balanced budget, the idea of the UFC doing anything less than taking drastic measures to keep their fighters sounds very shortsighted.

Of course, Viacom seems to have no interest in MMA outside of Bellator, and honestly that may never change.      

But if they do, it could see the UFC in the biggest fight of their lives.