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MMA Fans: Are you a Fan of “The Brand” or “The Star”


Because they must operate with the sanction and approval of athletic commissions, the UFC’s live gate figures are going to be part of the public record, since taxes and fees are assessed by the state agency based on those numbers. But pay-per-view figures, which are known to the cable operators, are not necessarily accessible to the public. Neither are the other income avenues, for this privately-held company.

That’s convenient. But sooner or later you just knew it was going to run into some resistance. Because sooner or later information leaks out. Because fighters can look into the crowd at a major arena or stadium and see a sellout. Because there are always going to be people who come along and, in the interest of maybe making a buck or two for themselves, will wise the fighter up. And just because they’re opportunists, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lying.

I wouldn’t disparage the UFC for wanting to build its brand above all else; in making it bigger than any individual fighter. After all, the way they see it they have their own interests to protect and this is how they maintain a healthy amount of leverage. This is how they mitigate the effects of the departure of any one so-called “star.” And to be brutally honest about it, the fighters have an abbreviated shelf life, while the brand can go on forever, right?

But if you are going to engage in the promotion of something that has the individual performer at its center, it is a cold, hard fact of life that those individuals are at some point going to be SEEN as individuals and not as mere spokes in a wheel. The UFC has, in a way, become a victim of its own mainstream popularity. The biggest stars; the most successful performers, are bound to become successful entities in their own right. They are going to have crossover appeal. They are going to become icons. And when that happens, they want to be PAID accordingly.

The argument the UFC, or anyone speaking on their behalf, would try to advance, is that they, the UFC, made these guys what they are today and they should be eternally grateful for it. In turn, because of that, they should be happy with the money they’re making and for the fact that they’re not working for $20 an hour somewhere as a karate instructor.

Well, that argument may start the car, but it doesn’t get too far down the highway.

You see, the entertainment business is driven by demand, whether it is demand for a product or for a commodity. Look at the acting business. Somebody who is waiting tables and flunking auditions today is going to be a star on television or in film a year from today. That’s the way it is, and it happens every day. Now do you think a studio is going to sit there and tell them they should accept lower wages than they’re worth just because they should feel fortunate to be in that position? Of course not. If you draw money, you command money. And when you don’t draw money anymore, you’re on the scrap heap. It’s that simple.

My prediction is that as this business continues to evolve and there are more MMA offerings available on pay-per-view and elsewhere, whether those offerings are ultimately successful or not, MMA is going to move from being product-driven to being star driven. That is the way the pay-per-view business has traditionally worked and that is what it will settle into for the MMA promoters. Boxing’s mega-events never sell to just the boxing fans; they have to transcend boxing to make it into the stratosphere. The same will hold true for MMA. That means crossover awareness is real currency. And for some of the performers there is simply too much crossover value for them not to be more in demand than others. At that point, if they can maintain relative free agency, they will be in the driver’s seat.

It would behoove the UFC to get out ahead of the curve.

Because the fastest way for them to lose the strength of their brand is to lose the brand names with some strength.

If you know what I mean.

For Some the Brand Might Not Work

Reportedly, the ratings on CBS’ second telecast of Elite XC were down 43% from its May 31 debut. While that number itself may be deceiving, since it was measured against a fight with Kimbo Slice that kicked off the series, it does tell you some things, one of which is that the sport opf mixed martial arts, as a generic entity, isn’t enough to pull in fans, at least in this current context. When the names weren’t there, the viewers weren’t either.

I am not so sure that bodes well for the future growth of MMA. As one person from inside the industry told me, “A lot of people thought you could get uinto this industry and make money almost by accident. And if that were true, there wasn’t any better time to do it than just recently. But it may just be that this audience, the real audience that can be depended upon to watch the sport itself, for the sake of the sport, is very limited. Maybe it’s just a nice-sized cult.”

If those words are true, perhaps the sport winds up losing ground, as evidenced by what is happening with this CBS “experiment.”

There is a winner here, and that winner is the UFC, which is proving that its product is somewhat impervious to that kind of elasticity brought on by “name” performer versus “no name” performer. Not that a fight with Anderson Silva in the main event won’t draw considerably more than a fight featuring Michael Bisping in terms of the pay-per-view audience, but the popularity of the fighters like Anderson Silva can be built over time because the UFC brand is that which conquers all. Could that have been more prominently on display than on that July 26 date when Elite XC could only score 341,000 viewers in the key 18-34 demographic for its live championship event, while the UFC, airing a replay of the last Sean Sherk-B.J. Penn fight on Spike TV outdrew it by over 90,000 viewers in that group, in addition to garnering a higher rating in the expanded Men’s 18-49 category?

And as attractive as the Afflcition: Banned card was aesthetically, it is not likely that it topped the 100,000 pay-per-view buys the group’s VP, Tom Atenciop, says it attained, or surpassed it by much. Meanwhile, UFC, which aired the Anderson Silva-James Irvin fight on Spike TV at the same time, got an audience of 3.8 million viewers., and effectively cut into the Affliction subscriptions – which needed to be 250K to break even – according to Atencio, even though the UFC card was inferior overall.

The UFC can keep doing this ad infinitim, and unless Affliction can put Fedor on every show, and Elite XC can do the same with Kimbo, they are going to have a harder time developing a regular audience that will watch it for the sake of its own event, rather than the idea of watching a specific star in action.

I know this is a departure from what I wrote in the past, as I was projecting that the performer was going to be the future, rather than the organization. That is going to hold true in many cases, but maybe for promotions that are more or less “one-off” venturs. The fact is that the UFC brand is giving every indication of holding up. Inasmuch as the UFC, by this time, can play “spoiler” by placing programming opposite signature events by its competitors, and simply put it down as a loss leader, they stand a good chance of prompting these competitors to bleed themselves of the money it’s going to take to stay afloat for the long haul.

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