MMA: Reading Between the Lines of the Zuffa Strikeforce Purchase

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MMA: Reading Between the Lines of the Zuffa Strikeforce Purchase
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Now that the shock has worn off and the dust has settled on the shocking Zuffa acquisition of Strikeforce, it’s time to read between the lines and determine what this means for the sport. Let’s cut through the rhetoric and break down the myths from the fact, and the fantasy from the reality.

The most disturbing aspect of the purchase is the prevailing opinion that somehow this is good news for the sport. This is an absolute fallacy. The fact is, the Zuffa purchase of Strikeforce is only good news if you’re Zuffa, who now possess virtually full control of "major league" MMA.

It certainly isn’t good news for the fighters, who now have one less place to find work, and now possess far less leverage in terms of contract negotiation. Dana White, in his interview with Ariel Helwani this past Saturday, talked about “business as usual”, and claimed that the free market competition for available fighters would continue between himself and Strikeforce head man Scott Coker.

Laughable.

When White says this, he is clearly attempting to con his contracted fighters, whose immediate first thoughts of the purchase had to be the terrifying prospect of their contracts coming due with only one major league promotion to negotiate with.

But there is a major hole in his statement. Zuffa is signing off on the budgets, and Zuffa is signing the checks. There is no competition, there is no free market. This is one company. If Zuffa decides to put a rear naked choke on fighter salaries, they can. If Zuffa wants to freeze a fighter out, they will.

I keep hearing from short-sighted fans and ill informed bloggers about how good this deal is for the fans. Again, I am perplexed by this train of thought. You could make the argument that this is great news for UFC fans (and I would still disagree), but for MMA fans? People who love the sport and not just the UFC brand? I would disagree strongly.

Strikeforce provided an alternative product, did not use a PPV driven business model, and gave fans all of their fights for free (ignoring the semantics of premium cable, of course).

Zuffa has made it clear that they will honor the existing Showtime contract, but it didn’t take Zuffa very long to consider moving the biggest Strikeforce fights to PPV, with White saying at the Monday press conference that they were “open to the idea” of the heavyweight grand prix final being on PPV.

To be fair, once Coker felt he had the right fight the move to PPV was likely in the cards for Strikeforce anyway, but Zuffa ownership certainly expedites that process.

Fans are also talking about potential dream matchups and “superfights”. This was one of the first things concerning the deal that White shot down in his interview with Helwani, saying that there would be no superfights, and no crossover of talent. White backed off of this stance a bit on Monday.

"I wouldn't count anything out with regards to fighters crossing over” White said. “As of now, we're keeping things separate, but it's a work in progress."

Astute observers never really believed White to begin with when he told Helwani that there would be no crossover. The name of the game is giving the fans the fights they want, and drawing as much money as possible. But the idea that these superfights are the one great benefit for fans also has one major flaw, in that there really aren’t that many superfights that can be made.

Once you get beyond the four major heavyweights (UFC’s Brock Lesnar & Cain Velasquez, and Strikeforce’s Alistair Overeem & Fedor Emelianenko) and those four possible matchups, what exactly are these supposed “superfights”?

Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Dan Henderson has already fought most of the top UFC fighters, and there is no novelty in seeing him fight in the Octagon since he just recently left. Middleweight champion Jacare Souza is a non-draw who means nothing to causal fans.  

Welterweight champ Nick Diaz is much improved from his UFC days, and is carving out a niche as a draw, but nobody ever talks about Diaz vs. Georges St Pierre, especially now with the entire MMA world buzzing for GSP vs. Anderson Silva. Gilbert Melendez is a great fighter, but again, is Melendez vs. Gray Maynard or Frankie Edgar a “superfight”? That’s a reach, even if you have long arms.

Even if you don’t buy into the idea that these supposed superfights are an exaggerated idea, there are still a very limited number of them that can be done. Then what? Once you mix the roster, the novelty is gone, and superfights no longer exist. Its short term, short sighted excitement. Long term, the fans lose.

There is no doubt that this is a great deal for Zuffa. The rumored $40 million price is well worth the cost when you consider not only the future live gate and PPV revenues that are to be made, but also the acquisition of the EliteXC and Strikeforce tape libraries.

This now gives Zuffa the rights to the UFC, PRIDE, WEC, Strikeforce, and EliteXC libraries, plus assorted other smaller collections like the WFA and IFL. This extensive pile of content opens up the possibility of starting up a UFC television network at some point down the line, which is a route all of the major professional sports leagues, some collegiate conferences, and even individual teams have already taken.

Zuffa can also now exploit their gigantic roster for international expansion. White has talked about running far more frequently in places like Australia and England, expanding from one or two shows per year in each country, to now up to a dozen, with eight to ten smaller shows building stars and supplementing one or two bigger shows.

What is the end game?

The Showtime contract runs through 2014. Nobody knows the language of that contract, but assuming Zuffa honors it in full, the Strikeforce brand will likely cease to exist beyond that point, because once the contractual obligations are honored there is little reason for Zuffa to keep the brand alive.

Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume Zuffa truly intends to run two brands, it is doubtful that idea would last long. There is no chance Zuffa could hold off for three years making the few money fights they can make by mixing the talent.

Mixing the talent would greatly dilute the novelty of “competing” brands, and if at that point they can find a way to eliminate the Strikeforce name before 2014 and absorb the fighters all into one brand, they will.

Until a new competing group emerges to challenge the UFC for market share (and without doubt, someone will eventually emerge), or Bellator finds a way to get itself on a more viable network and becomes a legitimate player, we are stuck with one major league MMA promotion.

Great for Zuffa, great for the Tapout t-shirt geeks crushing beer cans on their heads at Hooters, but bad for MMA fans.

 

Joe Lanza writes the often imitated, never duplicated (semi) weekly b/r MMA roundup “Around The Cage”.  Follow him on twitter @JoeMLanza

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