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Now or never for the UFC?

The UFC has always been the premier MMA organization in America. Indeed, its name (“Ultimate Fighting”) is a common synonym for mixed martial arts. Since most people think that “as the fate of the UFC goes, so goes the fate of MMA in America,” I thought I would take a quick look at where the UFC stands heading into the new year.

And, to be truthful, as I look at the promotion I see a lot of problems.

First and foremost, where is the T.V. deal? I predict that the UFC as we know it will be dead if it does not land a deal to broadcast a regular show on a major cable network in 2004. It will either close up shop or be sold to a new owner. After more than three years under Zuffa management, the UFC is supposedly still in the red on its shows, all of which are on PPV and some of which have had earned in excess of a million dollars at the live gates. When you couple those losses with the UFC’s inability to significantly grow the PPV audience, you can see that things cannot continue like this forever.

The only thing that can turn those bad numbers around is a weekly T.V. show that pumps up interest in the PPV events. People in the T.V. industry will tell you that you can get such a show any time you want if you are willing to pay for it. But, paying to air a show requires faith that you will make a return on your investment through merchandising, PPV, advertising, branding, etc. Zuffa obviously does not have faith that it can make back its money. Nor has it had the ability to sell its show to any network. So, for now, we sit and wait to see if any network will take a chance on the UFC.

The failure to grow the PPV audience has been exacerbated by the UFC’s match making. The UFC has demonstrated no ability to build up fighters in the public’s eye in order to create interest in its shows. Some fighters, such as Sakurai and Frank Trigg, have made their UFC debuts in championship fights. How is the general public supposed to get pumped up for a championship fight if it has never seen the challenger? I know that hardcore MMA fans know who these guys are and why they are great. But, that does not mean squat when it comes to building a PPV audience.

Moreover, the UFC does not appear to have well thought-out criteria for deciding whether the a fighter will continue to appear it its shows or get dropped. Really, the only thing certain about a UFC fighter’s future is that if he asks for more money, especially if he is a champion, he will be shown the door (see Jens Pulver, Josh Barnett and Murillo Bustamante). A UFC contract does not seem to depend on wins or exciting fights, but rather on the mood of UFC management. Murillo Bustamante, who was exciting, ridiculously talented and the champion at 185 lbs. (the exact kind of guy you want for your promotion), was shown the door because he dared to say that he wanted to see what his market value was when his contract expired. The UFC has to decide whether wins or exciting fights will keep a fighter in the UFC (I vote for exciting fights, myself). Its current system just does not cut it.

The discussion of champions being shown the door, of course, leads to another major issue for the UFC. Right now it has no champion at 155 lbs., 185 lbs. or heavyweight. The UFC does not even have a marketable pool of good heavyweights (with the exception of Frank Mir and maybe Andrei Arlovski) – most of who are fighting in Japan for Pride. The fact that the UFC ended the year with five weight classes and only two champions speaks to an incredible lapse in management and planning. Plus, if the the UFC follows through on its apparent intent to drop the 155 lb. championship, despite the fact that this division one of its few areas of strength, well . . . you probably already know my thoughts about that.

In its defense, the UFC has complained that it simply cannot feature enough fighters on its PPV shows to support all its weight classes. But, the UFC cannot explain why, then, it never created a feeder show or at least aligned with another promotion to act as its official feeder. Imagine this . . . during a break in the UFC action, the PPV telecast shows a highlight from a couple of fights at its latest feeder show, and hypes the winning fighters who will be appearing in the next UFC. At the next UFC, the UFC shows the same highlights to remind the audience why it got excited three months ago. All of a sudden we have interest in new fighters, and there are tons more slots open to fighters who are angling to get on (or stay on) the UFC’s cards.

The bottom line is that the UFC has blown the momentum it created when Zuffa took control, helped get MMA sanctioned in Nevada and returned the show to cable PPV. Unless the UFC turns the corner this year, when they write the story about Zuffa’s management it will most likely be a story of missed opportunities and mismanagement. What will make the story even sadder is that the failure of the UFC could end up crippling the sport of MMA in America for years to come.

UPDATE: “Insiders” who have read this article have told me that we should be hearing some big UFC news within the next week or two. Lets hope it helps bring the much needed spike in PPV ratings.

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