Brock Lesnar and the Star System: Can UFC Adjust to New Realities?

UFC Owner Lorenzo Fertitta

For years after buying the UFC from Semaphore Entertainment Group, the new owner's of MMA's biggest promotion had a simple mantra: it's the brand stupid. Instead of putting money into promoting individual fighters, fighters who may come and go, the focus was on building the UFC brand. UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta explained the strategy to Yahoo's Kevin Iole:

One of the things we do is that we invest heavily in the brand. We spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing. We're investing back into the sport. What that does is make everything more valuable for the fighters going forward. They should be happy that we invest back into the sport, because it continues to grow and they can make more money. This isn't a short-term thing.

This was the opposite approach fans were used to. In the sport of boxing, fighters had long ago taken the reigns from promoters. Money in that sport went to the top fighters in the main event - and the show was sold by these top stars, men like Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya. The undercards were such an afterthought that they were rarely ever mentioned on the television broadcasts and certainly didn't make it on the air in their entirety.

Fertitta and Dana White took a different tack. They sold the UFC as an event. Sure, you'd get a great main event at a UFC show. But you'd also get hours of entertaining fights on the undercard. It was a brilliant move, one that Fertitta argues in an enlightening interview in The Atlantic, benefited the fighters as much as the promotion:

I believe that what we built here is an incredible machine and an incredible brand. You hear a lot of criticism, ‘these guys all they care about is the brand, it’s not about the fighters.’ Well let me tell you what. This brand has made a lot of money for a lot of fighters who in and of themselves didn’t have a brand of their own before they fought in the UFC. So the brand creates a lot of value for these guys. 

Now, after building this sport into a billion dollar brand, Fertitta and White face a new challenge. Despite (or more likely because of) their hard work building the UFC into the Kleenex of MMA, fighters are emerging that transcend the promotion. It's not longer enough to sell the UFC brand and expect the dollars to pour in. Fans are starting to differentiate between fighters and cards that are "must sees" and ones that can be skipped over.

The biggest difference maker, of course, is the UFC's mammoth heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar. Lesnar, according to data compiled by MMA Payout, adds almost 600,000 additional buyers to the average UFC pay per view. That's worth a cool $25-30 million to the UFC and their television partners. To Payout, it's part of a trend showing fans are able to distinguish compelling content from the run of the mill.

Television numbers are down across the board for the UFC. That doesn't indicate a lack of interest. As we've seen with Lesnar and other top stars, there is huge interest in the UFC. But that interest is only in the high end product. Less stellar matchups will net less impressive results. The brand no longer does the heavy lifting:

...the television ratings are dropping on Spike for just about everything. I don’t think this a reflection of the sport or a slight to the potential of the product. Rather I think it comes back to provide compelling content. When the UFC provides content like UFN 14 (Silva vs. Irvin) or UFC 105 (Couture vs. Vera) people are going to tune in. When the UFC offers up something like Swick-Burkman as a main event for UFN 12, people won’t.

I hear a lot of concern about over-saturation in the marketplace, but it really all comes down to the product offering. The good events will be highly successful and the bad events will experience just mediocre results.

What we are seeing is perhaps the beginning of a paradigm shift in MMA promotion. The brand alone will no longer sell the sport. That takes compelling fighters and compelling matchups. The UFC's continued success is contingent on recognizing this and rewarding the fighters that draw ratings and create interest accordingly. If Fertitta and White hold fast to the way of doing business that built the company, doors will open for the competition. The UFC has done a masterful job creating this sport from nothing. Now we'll see how well they do at remaining on that carefully constructed pedestal.

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