The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

“Crazy Things”

Dana White on all sorts of stuff

Everything will depend on the specifics of the deal, but I will say- I don’t think a lot of people quite get what UFC on ESPN with a good deal at this moment can mean. I’ve been a boxing fan for a long time and I’ve gone some small way towards trying to educate myself on the history of that sport; I’ve also gone some way into trying to understand the history of pro wrestling as an industry for a variety of reasons. Both of those businesses bear on UFC’s long-term potential, since MMA is essentially a collision between many of the elements of both: the one-company business model and sustained focus on building larger-than-life stars of wrestling; the legitimacy and uniquely compelling competition of boxing (and in this, MMA is really superior), the ethnic rivalries and fire of fighting sports which they both share, and many more besides. One of their other shared elements is that there was a time in American life when they were both much, much bigger deals than they are now- before boxing destroyed its fanbase in a thousand ways, and before wrestling became congealed and identified with WWE’s style alone. Wrestling at one point in this country sold tens of millions of tickets a year in a country with a much smaller population; boxing once ran club shows which sold out every night and drew 100,000 to the old Soldier Field for Dempsey vs. Tunney.

I never thought I would live to see days like those in my time as a fan. Boxing had just gotten kicked off of the networks when I began to follow it and while wrestling had its late 90’s boom period, that was always an obviously ephemeral thing which didn’t have the emotional attachments to its audience which that business used to have. But human nature doesn’t change all that much; and the people who once flocked to boxing and wrestling but now wouldn’t be caught dead at either one, those people are still out there and MMA under the UFC banner right now is the best hope I’ve seen for calling them back. MMA doesn’t have deep cultural roots yet, obviously, but it’s working on developing them with every show and every intelligent business deal that UFC makes. If they can take their current product- which is, let’s be honest, far and away the best it’s ever been- to ESPN and maintain the things which have made them popular, all of a sudden they have the chance to reach a far vaster audience than ever before. There’s nothing like network TV in the 1950’s available today, but ESPN maintains in a fractured entertainment universe an essentially unique hold and influence over the sports-following public.

Being on ESPN conveys legitimacy; it’s hard to see how Ontario and New York can hold out much longer with bans for something shown regularly on basic cable on maybe the most famous cable channel alongside the NBA and other major sports leagues. Being on ESPN also gives UFC a chance to embed itself as a sport, to reach out to the sort of younger viewers who they don’t draw from now but who can watch on basic cable what they can’t buy on PPV. Yes, that was possible with Spike before, but ESPN is of a wholly different order from Spike TV in drawing fans and dictating what matters in the sports world. Being on ESPN gives UFC and MMA a chance to grab older fans, channel-flippers and curiosity viewers who’ll come across MMA in a way they never would have when it was banished to PPV or vaguely embarrassingly-themed 3rd tier cable channels. In general ESPN gives UFC the platform they need to expand beyond what is for the moment still an intensely energetic and committed but limited fanbase of 25-40 year old white males, the chance to compete with boxing for Latino fans in a country becoming more Latino every day, the chance to expose vast amounts of people to a sport which is even now still a slightly underground, word-of-mouth industry. And it bears mention that ESPN and ABC are jointly owned.

This is a sport which has had two or three major breakouts before, which continues to find new ceilings to its popularity. My sense is that with the sport starting to break into Mexico and the potential for a major ESPN deal coming on the back of the most successful UFC PPV in history, that we’re right on the brink of another one. I don’t think MMA will ever be able to be quite what boxing was in the 50’s due to entertainment fragmentation primarily; but I think far more of the types of people who were fans in that era are recoverable than is commonly believed to be the case. The day may come when 1.5 million buys on PPV is considered average for UFC, and when 30 or 40 million people in North America watching a show is achievable. Everything has to go right for that to happen- but so far, nearly everything is.


Side note: MMA Fanhouse is reporting that Fedor wants to go to Strikeforce. Three quick thoughts:

1. If this is for negotiating leverage, than it’s a good ploy and fair play to Fedor’s handlers.

2. If he does go to Strikeforce that may be a serious aid to them in building their brand, and they’re desperately in need of new stars.

3. However, with that said, if Fedor goes to Strikeforce for less money than UFC offers then he’s officially become a punchline no matter how skilled and talented he remains. Strikeforce’s heavyweight division is terrible- it’s basically Notastar Overeem when he shows up once every two years or so, Brett “One Good Win” Rogers, Fabricio Werdum, and the vague hope that Bigfoot Silva gets off suspension this decade. That’s it. Fedor hanging out in San Jose fighting that assortment becomes MMA’s Floyd Mayweather: a brilliantly talented individual living off a reputation derived from things done years in the past, who appears so terrified of testing that talent that after a while it becomes impossible to take them seriously when they spend more effort avoiding fights than fighting them. There’s 5 guys in UFC (Brock, Randy, Mir, Carwin, Velasquez) who I and probably most MMA fans would rather see Fedor fight before the first guy in Strikeforce, and arguably another 4 (Cro Cop, Kongo, Dos Santos, Noguiera) who could put up a better fight than anyone in Strikeforce.

Simply put, if Fedor is offered a generous deal and still opts to turn it down to fight 2nd and 3rd tier opposition, than fuck ’em; he’s no longer a going concern in the sport of MMA in any meaningful sense.


July 26, 2009 - Posted by | MMA | , , ,

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