Imagine you're a guy who likes MMA. Not loves it but likes it.
You've probably seen a dozen events over the course of the past few years, you'll throw in with your chums to watch a big pay-per-view, and you know the big stars like Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva.
You're the casual MMA fan.
Now chances are, if you're reading this, you're a more serious fan—you know that Justin Scoggins is the next big thing at flyweight or that Luciano Azevedo is the only man to ever beat Jose Aldo.
But just use your imagination for a minute. Close your eyes and be "casual."
In the current climate of mixed martial arts—where events happen every week and the faces are almost totally interchangeable, including champions—would you even notice the shape of the cage that two dudes were fighting in?
Would you notice who the guys in the cage even were?
Would you notice a difference between Joe Rogan, Kenny Florian or Jimmy Smith explaining the nuances within it?
Do you think promotions do a good job of differentiating themselves to casual fans?
If you polled a hundred of those casual fans, it wouldn't be crazy to think that half of them or more would answer "no" to any of those questions. Probably all of them.
And therein lies a major issue in the sport today: The biggest promotions are trying to differentiate themselves by trying to sell their brand instead of their stars, in a world where they're pretty much the same thing anyway.
To the MMA layman, regardless of the promotion, it's a night of a dozen fights that might include two or three recognizable names. Often, those names aren't even pitted against each other and are spread out across hours of action and multiple viewing platforms.
Sure, that boiled-down take is not totally accurate. Bellator has its tournament structure and has yet to make waves on pay-per-view, while the UFC's best fights these days are coming from a women's division, and the guy that they've sold hardest has never thrown a punch in the Octagon, but the casual fan doesn't know that.
He probably doesn't care.
He's really only interested in seeing two people beat each other up, and the details of that happening are largely irrelevant to him.
But with so many cards and fighters, so much MMA spread across television, pay-per-view and even the Internet, shouldn't someone be trying to do something different? Trying to stand out as something more than a place where faceless fighters swap wins and losses without much meaning?
Like it or not, that's what the casual MMA fan sees, and it's what the rest of the sport has to deal with. While true fans—the hardcores who are on The Underground or surfing the Internet for hours to learn all they can about the game—will always be there, it is resonance with the casual fan that will keep the sport afloat.
Black gloves, black cage, gray mat, tattoos and interchangeable shouting announcers won't create that resonance.
Promotions need to sell stars, because stars will resonate.
Bellator needs to get Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez out in front of their meeting on May 17, because no one cares that the event is the first ever for the company on pay-per-view. Viewers care about the fighters, their stories and what they'll do in the cage.
They need to give Pat Curran and Daniel Straus more media time, because their division is pretty crowded at the top and has plenty of competitive balance with Patricio "Pitbull" Freire in the mix as well.
The UFC needs to get over the idea that three letters will trump all, because that idea is antiquated and has been for a while. People buy personalities and athletic accomplishments, not letters.
It's time to get over petty squabbles with a true star like Jon Jones and push him as a personality. Positive or negative, his personality attracts eyes and his athletic feats keep them glued to his work.
It's time to give Nick Diaz a fight, because people care about him. The longer you wait to book him, the better chance there is that he might simply head back to Stockton for a triathlon and forget this whole MMA thing even exists.
It's time to identify other fighters who do it differently and might catch the attention of a casual fan and then sell them at every turn. There's more to the sport than being willing to work cheap or fight in Singapore, and athletic tools and charisma are pretty high on that list. Identifying athletes with both is the whole reason of the business getting this far to begin with, and that shouldn't change.
The fact of the matter is that MMA right now is basically an interchangeable collection of promotional bodies that appear on various media platforms and may or may not provide an exciting night of viewing.
At least that's how casual fans are likely to be seeing it, and it's their money that's going to prop the sport up in a time when things are spread too thin and growth has slowed from the pace of the late 2000s.
So, I say to these promotions: Go be different. Stop believing that your brand is what sells, because it doesn't. The fact that Bellator replaced the UFC basically seamlessly on Spike TV should be a sign of that—fans are interested in fights and fighters, not who's promoting them.
Sell those entities, sell your stars and their stories and watch that coveted casual cash start to roll in with a little more frequency.
Otherwise, the sport will never be more than two faceless dudes throwing leather in an equally faceless cage, and it deserves far more than that.