MMA's Shrinking Pond Leaves the UFC as the Biggest Fish

Looks like Dana and the Fertitta Brothers remain the unchallenged kings of MMA.

Dave Meltzer wrote yesterday about the aftermath of April, one of the busiest months in MMA history. In particular he focused on the meaning of Strikeforce's flop CBS show from Nashville:

It's still uncertain how the April 17 show will affect the Strikeforce/CBS relationship, with its ugly post-fight brawl, disappointing matches and a lackluster prime-time rating. In a business that is all about creating superstars, which at its best is a difficult process based on luck, timing and exposure, it can't be emphasized how important having CBS exposure is for Strikeforce.

The company's ultimate goal - to compete with the industry-leading UFC - is based on being able to produce successful pay-per-view shows. With Showtime, Strikeforce's main carrier, only available in a small percentage of the U.S. homes, it's questionable if that's a strong enough platform to build a successful pay-per-view event.

In a separate piece Meltzer diagnoses just how bad the outcome was for Strikeforce on CBS in April:

The April 17 show in Nashville proved, once again, that without a major superstar to anchor a broadcast, you can't pull major network-level prime time ratings. In the past, Kimbo Slice, Gina Carano and Emelianenko have proven to all be superstars who can draw an audience past the base audience of hardcore fight fans.

Former UFC star Dan Henderson, who the show was built around, proved not to be a network-level superstar as the show ended up doing a 1.8 rating and 2.86 million viewers, the second-lowest of the five CBS specials to date.

But even more important, since the event was pushed to advertisers as a way to target hard-to-reach males 18-34 bracket, the show only did a 1.3 in that demographic, down from a 2.3 in November when Emelianenko headlined against Brett Rogers. Worse, from a ratings standpoint, the show was beaten in its target demo (although drawing a much larger audience overall) head-to-head by Spike airing a replay of the February UFC 110 pay-per-view.

While it's entirely possible that CBS might go for one more bite at the MMA apple, I don't expect them to. MMA has proven to be a difficult and inconsistent proposition.

So if Strikeforce is coming out of April weakened and perhaps mortally wounded as a long-term competitor to the UFC, what about their ally across the Pacific, DREAM? Zach Arnold breaks down the implications of the collapse of DREAM's Light Heavyweight Grand Prix due to a lack of support from their network TV partner:

Tokyo Broadcasting System not ponying up the cash to pay for a Light Heavyweight GP tournament featuring Gegard Mousasi and Renato Babalu is not surprising. TBS wants Japanese stars and ratings. DREAM features neither of those qualities. To top it off, the 5/29 Saitama event is headlined by Nick Diaz vs. Hayato Sakurai in a Strikeforce vs. DREAM interpromotional feud that has zero juice to it. Any juice that could have been obtained was squashed when Gilbert Melendez destroyed Shin'ya Aoki in Nashville on April 17th.

The purpose of DREAM for K-1 was largely as a television property to keep any possible MMA competitors off of over-the-air Japanese television. Since cable and satellite television is not a viable option for a Japanese fight promotion to generate much cash flow with, OTA is the only way to survive as a major league property in that country. Without TBS cooperating, DREAM as an entity is largely dead and everyone knows it.

D.W. at Head Kick Legend diagnoses the cause of the failure of DREAM -- a failure to produce Japanese stars:

The fall of KID Yamamoto, Kazushi Sakuraba, retirement of Genki Sudo and the passing of fads like Bob Sapp and Bobby Olgun has put MMA in Japan into a bit of an odd place. To catch on like other fads in Japan again, MMA needs a strong native star to rise up at the right time and be the right mix of skill, budo spirit and boyish good looks to drive up female viewership (if you still refuse to admit this is why Masato, KID Yamamoto, etc. were stars you are in denial).

As you can imagine, FEG, Real Entertainment and TBS are not getting along very well in regards to MMA and the future of DREAM. I fully expect the rumors which were in the past just whispers of FEG trying to sell DREAM turning into more than just whispers.

The implications of the deep troubles afflicting the UFC's biggest competitors, combined with the unexpected success of WEC 48: Aldo vs Faber on PPV this weekend leave Zuffa in an even stronger position.

But fear not Kid Nate fans, I still read this as a long term negative. The failure of MMA on American and Japanese network television means that MMA will remain a niche sport for the foreseeable future. That is good for Zuffa and Dana White. It's not a total loss for fans as they have proven they can consistently deliver an excellent product. 

However their willingness to water down their product in the interest of sticking to a strict PPV schedule may be eroding their paying fan base. This statement Meltzer got from WEC honcho Reed Harris about the difference between the WEC's approach to PPV and that of the UFC:

Harris noted that even if the show beats expectations on pay-per-view, that WEC will be a product that does pay-per-view when the right match comes along, as opposed to UFC, which has a set schedule of pay-per-view dates every few weeks, and then plugs in matches for those dates.

Zuffa has shown over the past nine months that they'll keep the PPV's coming, whether or not they have the appealing fights to fill the cards. Allowing their PPV cash cow to dry up combined with their ambitious and expensive goals for international expansion is a dangerous combination. Time will tell if Zuffa is making the right gamble.

The other big losers in a potential collapse of major competition to the UFC will be the fighters. Athletes like Andrei Arlovski, Renato "Babalu" Sobral and Dan Henderson that get cross-ways with Dana White will be between a rock and a hard place without viable competition.

That's not good for the sport.

Nor is the loss of Japan as a major MMA market. For all of the UFC's success in the UK and Australia, Japan dwarfed them as an MMA market. The pool of Japanese fan money that fueled the big pay days that fighters and promoters made in the hey day of PRIDE is gone and although it's offset by the explosion of MMA's popularity in the U.S. its loss is still going to be keenly felt.

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