Luke's been pretty sanguine about the bad financial news Zuffa has been getting. While I agree that in the long term it's probably no big deal, I think in the short term it's a pretty serious bummer for Zuffa, the UFC and MMA fans in America.
The main setbacks Dana has had this year were:
- The disastrous PRIDE acquisition
I think this is the fiasco most of the others follow from. Ironically, as much as Dana disses internet fan boys, he's one himself. Only a fanboy would pay what Zuffa shelled out for a mortally wounded promotion whose scandals had already cost them their TV deal. Only a fanboy would be so threatened at the prospect of PRIDE mounting a financially disastrous Las Vegas show that they panic and start offering money. Clearly due diligence wasn't performed or Zuffa would have figured out BEFORE the sale that PRIDE's contracts with its fighters weren't transferrable. Basically, Dana and his crew got played. And while they were busy getting screwed they took their eyes off a lot of other important matters. Like:
- The failure to secure a premium cable deal
This was a major screw-up that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. I'll be clear that this one isn't Dana's fault entirely -- apparently they had a deal with HBO nearly done when their main partner at the cable company got shitcanned for slapping his girlfriend around in a parking lot after watching some fights. Where they screwed themselves was in blowing off Showtime as soon as HBO came a courting. EliteXC was quick to land that deal. This created a cascade of problems -- Dana had cleverly planned to broadcast his UK shows on pay cable and suddenly he had too much product.
- The ratings slide of the reality show
Had Dana not been so busy trying to conquer the world, he might have taken the time to notice that the goose that laid the golden egg was getting pretty fucking old. The Ultimate Fighter show was the key to UFC going mainstream in the states. Its stagnant formula and resulting stagnant ratings have turned that positive into an increasingly negative factor, especially since Dana decided to start bogging down title fights in soap opera land. Which leads us to:
- Too much title turnover
This is another one Dana can't be entirely blamed for but it still hurts the franchise. Ever since UFC entered the mainstream in 2004, it's been dominated by 4 popular champs: Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Rich Franklin and Andrei Arlovski. One by one these champs took a dive and their divisions followed.
Heavyweight was seemingly saved from the awful tedium that was Tim Sylvia by the miraculous comeback of Randy Couture. But as we know, the ridiculous bidding wars triggered by the failed PRIDE acquisition chased Couture out of the fold. Matt Hughes' fall to George St. Pierre would not have been so bad since GSP is charismatic and had been building in popularity for years. But GSP's freak loss to Matt Serra was a disaster for the org. Dana compounded the damage when he decided to put the division on hold for eight months to prop up the reality show. Franklin's loss to the non-English speaking Anderson Silva was really only a temporary setback due to Silva's incredible skills and fan pleasing fighting style. But still, there's no pretending that Silva is as marketable in the US as the well-spoken Rich Franklin. The re-emergence of the lightweight division was coming along nicely with both champ Sean Sherk and #1 contender B.J. Penn well known to fans, then a little matter of a failed urine test and numerous appeals came in. Ironically, Dana's loyalty to his favorites is what screwed things up there -- instead of immediately stripping Sherk and letting B.J. get on with getting the belt, Dana delayed and ended up really botching the UFC's return to the east coast. Then there's the matter of Chuck and Rampage....
- A failure to build new stars
It's clear that UFC 71 on Memorial Day was the highwater mark (for now) of MMA in the U.S. It's also clear that the sudden KO of heavily hyped champ (and white) Chuck Liddell to the relatively unknown (and black) Quinton Rampage Jackson was a major set back for the UFC and one that could have easily been avoided. Rampage wanted time to grow in the organization. The fans needed time to get to know just how awesome Rampage is as a fighter AND as a personality, so instead of letting Quinton build and/or doing much more media promotion of the charismatic contender, they rushed him into a title shot that was marketed 100% as a redemption fight for the champ.
On top of that, they bet the house on Cro Cop emerging as a major star, then put him in against unknowns who had massive size advantages. The money they spent marketing Cro Cop could've been spent on building up Rampage instead. Another fiasco that's been sucked down the memory is the overhyping and bad matchmaking that sank Heath Herring. There's clearly a curse on new signings that are introduced by headlining a UFC Fight Night (see Marquardt, Nathan) but they really should've put him in against a brawler instead of a wrestler for his first fight. And the overhyping of Herring and Cro Cop again indicates Dana's fan boy tendencies. Following up Herring's underwhelming debut with a match against top PRIDE acquisition Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira made utterly no sense. Herring was damaged goods to UFC fans at that point (and he'd already lost twice to Big Nog) so when he nearly KO'd Nogueira, that damage got all over the Brazilian. No they're about to have to put Big Nog into the title fight and the fans just have no idea what a great fighter he is.
Then there's Dan Henderson, suddenly dropped into a titlefight with no chance to show the fans what he can do before having to face Rampage.
- Over-expansion into England
You don't really have to say much more than UFC 72 -- the event that was so fucked up they aired it as a PPV at 2pm EST, with no title fight. The UFC 75 show on SPIKE did well in the ratings, but still the UK adventure has been a huge money suck for Zuffa. The ongoing travails of British TUF posterboy Michael Bisping haven't helped at all. And because they blew off the Showtime deal in favor of an HBO deal that never happened, rival EliteXC was able to buy Cage Rage and compete with UFC on two fronts -- on premium cable.
Update [2007-11-29 8:7:19 by Kid Nate]:
Caleb from MMA Productions points out it wasn't just UFC that had a rough year, the whole MMA industry is in the "'trough of disillusionment', which follows the 'peak of inflated expectations.'"