Cruising into the New Year, the UFC's Dana White has every reason to be satisfied with himself. While the UFC's rate of growth has slowed some, there can be no doubt that Zuffa stands alone at the top of the MMA heap.
Let's survey the rubble.
It's not a secret that FEG has been battling financial problems stemming from the decline in interest in both kickboxing and MMA. Ratings are down. Attendance is down. Money is beyond tight. Fighters, who often have to wait months before getting paid after a fight, are looking to get out.
The most telling news about the scene was UFC's signing of Dream's biggest drawing card and best known current star, Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, earlier this month, eliminating him from appearing on the December 31 show.
There may be light at the end of the tunnel. Those involved with the promotion were told at the Dec. 11 K-1 World Grand Prix show, the annual year-end kickboxing tournament, that new money was coming in from investors in France and China. This money would be used to expand into new markets, such as Europe and the Pacific Rim, and not have to rely so much on the declining Japanese market.
A few months back, when FEG head Sadaharu Tanigawa talked about trying to raise capital, he specifically noted that they don't plan on expanding into the U.S., feeling that it would be impossible on their home soil to compete with UFC and World Wrestling Entertainment, which he called the company's two leading competitors on the world stage.
"But I haven't seen the money yet," noted (K-1 U.S. representative Michael) Kogan.
Then there's Strikeforce who have been trying to pick up the pieces of a pretty disastrous 2010. The buzz has been that they are working on mounting a very cool eight man heavyweight tournament with Alistair Overeem, Fedor Emelianenko, Fabricio Werdum, Josh Barnett, Andrei Arlovski, Antonio Silva, Sergei Kharitonov, and Brett Rogers. That would be hot. But Zach Arnold pours cold water all over it:
Between (the news that Fedor won't fight in January) and the fact that Josh Barnett still isn't licensed to fight in California and Alistair Overeem has K-1 obligations and you're looking at a Heavyweight tournament consisting of guys like Brett Rogers and Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva. In other words, if Strikeforce tries to put together a Heavyweight tournament, it will fall apart before it even begins.
At this point, all I want to see from Strikeforce is competency. Forget about booking a tournament. Forget about any elaborate plans for 2011. Produce the fights that people want to see and do so in a timely manner. This is a results-oriented business. The rematch between Fedor and Werdum, if there was going to be one, should have happened before the end of 2010. It didn't. The fact that Fedor's camp is even negotiating with Strikeforce and showing strength after the loss to Werdum is amazing. Nobody knows when Werdum or Overeem (or Barnett) is going to fight next. Who's left?
It was recently pointed out on Twitter than Shane Del Rosario, a man who Scott Coker loves to tout as a future ace in Strikeforce, has only fought twice in two years for the promotion. In contrast, he fought three years in one year for Gary Shaw under the Elite XC banner.
Ditch the idea of a tournament. Start booking the fights that fans want to see and book fights that are actually meaningful. Book competitive fights with no delays. No more excuses. No more tournaments until you've earned the public's trust.
That leaves Bellator, which just announced a deal with MTV2.
Well look at them and how Dana White can capitalize on the opportunities a monopoly power will afford him in the full entry.
Jake Rossen thinks there are possibilities for the partnership:
If MTV2 wants to make the company an equal content partner, it could mean a radical change in how the network is perceived. If the channel wants to treat Bellator as silent filler and hope the hardcores latch on to it, it won't be worth considerably more than the Fox deal. As we've seen with CBS and Strikeforce, there's no guarantee a deal leads to corporate adhesion. A broadcast partner with no interest in your product isn't worth the coaxial cable it's fed through.
Assuming the network gets it, Bellator still has significant hurdles to overcome: There is potential that its inoffensive production could be reimagined for the ADD generation; injuries often wreck the tournament format; and there's still the inherent suspicion on the part of viewers who don't see "UFC" anywhere in the channel listing.
Although there is no catching the UFC, there are niches available in MMA -- but it takes a marriage between product and provider to secure one. For Bellator to have a chance, MTV2 needs to do a lot more than just the bare minimum. The UFC and Spike gave everyone the formula; it's up to Viacom to find out if it's repeatable.
Dave Meltzer is not high on the deal (via the Wrestling Observer, subscription only):
After reports from several MMA web sites reported here last week of a Bellator deal with FX, the announcement on 12/14 of Bellator signing a three-year deal with MTV 2 comes as almost a death knell for them to be taken as any kind of a serious player.
MTV 2 is a poorly rated network, which recently gave a Lucha Libre based pro wrestling promotion a Friday night prime time slot (where it did around a 0.1 rating most weeks, a normal rating for that network in prime time) which got the company virtually no traction or ratings. ...
The FX deal, which would have included a 30 minute replay highlights show on FSN and Fuel TV, would have at least given the promotion a major chance to be put on the map as a serious player, as they'd have a stronger station and weekly time slot than any MMA show in the U.S.
While Bellator provided a good weekly television show, it made little traction as far as interest past the hardest of the hardcores and drew small crowds, certainly not enough to offset a promotion that paid $100,000 for each tournament winner and had big money deals with stars like Eddie Alvarez and Hector Lombard. Alvarez's deal, believed to be for more than six figures per fight, is so strong that if he was a free agent, the indications we've been given are that UFC wouldn't even consider trying to match it, and Alvarez has been one of the most exciting fighters in the world in recent years.
But the fact is, non-UFC MMA has traditionally skewed older than 35 as its prime television audience, not younger. MTV's "Bully Beatdown" and a BET's "Iron Ring" opened with good ratings within the younger demo because of the appeal of the station they were on, and Bully Beatdown still does okay, but both fell quickly from their starting point. While MTV2 lists being in 75 million to 80 million of the 100 million homes that have cable/satellite, our local Comcast carries the station on a premium tier so most have no access to it.
Of the three, FEG is clearly in the weakest position. The powers that be have decided that MMA is a dead fad in Japan and are no longer giving it the push that made fighters like Genki Sudo and Kazushi Sakuraba cross-over stars. They're bleeding money and talent and are just trying to hang on.
Strikeforce still has a chance to turn things around. As Arnold noted, the "X factor" is the relationship with Fedor Emelianenko and M-1 Global. M-1 may be trying to cut a deal directly with Showtime to air the M-1 Global Challenge. If they partner directly with Showtime, why do they need Strikeforce?
I like Strikeforce's roster, but I agree with Arnold that they haven't managed to do much with the talent they have under contract.
As for Bellator, they've done an incredible job of finding and building new talent but they definitely didn't build much momentum this year with their Fox Sports TV deal that constantly saw Bellator live shows pre-empted and frequently not shown at all. We'll see how the MTV2 deal pans out for them. Meanwhile they continue their legal battles with the UFC, notably over the contract of The Ultimate Fighter winner Jonathan Brookins.
Merry Christmas Dana, a couple more years like this and you'll be able to cut any fighter that gives you even the slightest headache and print money while booking shows with no legit headliners like UFC 119 and 122.