Strikeforce's Heavy Artillery event on Saturday evening in St. Louis went off without a problem. The main event battle between Alistair Overeem and Brett Rogers delivered results, and the rest of the card was far from the lackluster performances we saw at Strikeforce: Nashville. Even though there was some complaining from fans regarding the quality of some of the opponents on the main card, everything worked out perfectly, and storylines have been created for a follow-up event that many fans will be looking forward to watching.
Unfortunately, I'm still a little perturbed. With the broadcast ending earlier than their allotted time slot on Showtime, I was hoping that Strikeforce and Showtime would be gracious to the hardcore fans watching their event by airing the Lyle Beerbohm vs. Vitor "Shaolin" Ribeiro undercard bout. Not only had Coker stated during the week that both men would be considered in the mix at lightweight, but both men had waited a very long time to fight as the promotion worked out match-ups and the title picture. What's the deal?
Luckily, someone has tackled the same issue. Zach Arnold transcribed a discussion between Sherdog radio personalities Jordan Breen and TJ DeSantis during their Beatdown After the Bell show regarding my exact complaints, and some interesting questions came from the discussion:
TJ DE SANTIS: "I don’t understand why this promotion doesn’t push I think a lot of their prospects, they refuse to show prelims. … They could have shown the Shaolin Ribeiro and Lyle Beerbohm which I want to see and I think a lot of people want to see to see how and why it was scored the way it was. I mean, the UFC obviously has a much stronger brand, but that brand I think is strong, Jordan, because they promote their fighters within, they make stars out of their fighters, and those stars obviously are the face of the promotion. I think, yeah, the UFC brand alone is always going to outsell Strikeforce, but Strikeforce I mean doesn’t have the names, the poster boys, the stars really that the UFC does because they don’t push them correctly."
JORDAN BREEN: "I think it’s a combination of that and the fact that is a product now being led by Showtime, whose familiarity is in boxing and one of the things we touched on recently with Strikeforce, not this card but their last effort in Nashville, is the fact that Showtime, the way they do their boxing product, Showtime are always kind of the #2 to HBO but the reason they are able to thrive in the boxing environment is they’ve always been very keen to really catch and scoop up the good fights that slip through the cracks. When HBO wasn’t particularly interested in Castillo/Corrales for whatever, they were there to scoop it up. Same with the Vasquez/Marquez trilogy, same for years during one of the things they’ve always done from the 90s right up until now, even back in the late 80s actually, was scooping up European title fights with world titlists in Europe. They were really, you know, home of the well-skilled but less marketable boxers before they became superstars. Bernard Hopkins before he became unified Middleweight champion of the world in supreme fashion, always fought on Showtime. So they were always very good at scooping up all the pieces and stuff that HBO didn’t want in idiocy or just overlooked and that doesn’t exist with MMA. It’s not independent promoters making really good fights and then you can just rush to the scene and choose to air it. Doesn’t work that way. So, they’re trying to hand-pick and craft a product that they really don’t know a whole lot about and that’s why we end up with Kevin Randleman on cards like this and why we have an inability to develop prospects fruitfully and why we don’t get to see prospects on cards. And why really the only major talking points we’re going to get tonight are: Can Alistair Overeem beat Fedor Emelianenko and how good can you know Jacare or Roger Gracie be? It’s less instructive and there’s less of a narrative coming out of any Strikeforce event than a UFC event partially because of what you mentioned. It’s not just that they don’t sell the product well-enough, it’s that there’s never a sense that things are leading to something larger, that the product is put together in a magnetic, compelling way that builds on its own…"
I asked myself the same questions in the aftermath of Heavy Artillery. Why isn't Strikeforce promoting some of these other fighters in their organization on the event's undercard and showing some of these battles? Is it simply because Strikeforce: Challengers is the home of the up-and-comers? If that's the case, why was a battle between two very solid lightweight fighters who could become contenders shelved to the undercard of a major event and had no chance to ever be aired?
Perhaps Scott Coker doesn't see any value in Beerbohm or Ribeiro in the long run with the promotion. Both men have styles that don't historically appeal to a casual fanbase, and with the talk that Beerbohm is looking for a way out -- maybe Coker and Showtime weren't willing to give him that face time. If that's the case, it actually makes sense.
This doesn't solve the problem of Strikeforce failing in promoting their brand. While their name is out there in the world and gaining some steam, that's all it is... a name. What ultimately attracts fans to watch a promotion like Strikeforce, a promotion that's living in an era in which a lot of casual fans understand MMA as the UFC, is the fighters.
Arnold brings up a good point in that the UFC has a network like Spike to help promote their brand weekly, and with the UFC Unleashed shows airing like continuous marathons on the network every other day -- it's no wonder the brand has saturated the minds of casual fans interested in the sport. Strikeforce will never have that commitment from Showtime, and in reality -- the UFC is unique in having that sort of deal. It truly separates them from everyone.
So, why is Bellator more successful right now at creating buzz our their fighters? And if you doubt they haven't created buzz, you're wrong. I've actually had a lot of friends talk to me about "This Bellator event" on Fox Sports Net, and how they look forward to it every week. Why is this working versus the higher quality battles that Strikeforce produces?
In my mind, their weekly presence and the quality of the fights has really helped their viewership. Adding a few names that are appealing to hardcore fans with one major recognizable fighter that appeals to casual fans like Roger Huerta has helped, and the fact that the events are weekly gives a lot of sports fans something to look forward to on Thursday nights. Furthermore, they can promote their stars and other events on a weekly basis, something Strikeforce seems to procrastinate at doing effectively.
Breen and DeSantis touch on the differences between Bellator and Strikeforce, but the major focus came down on Showtime and how they promote the product. Ultimately, I think they're right. Showtime doesn't know mixed martial arts, and they don't seem to be in tune with the fanbase or what the fanbase is used to seeing. Does anyone think it's a coincidence that most websites have a menu either on the left or top of the website? No, it's because research-based focus groups determined 90% of users are used to that style of navigation. The same applies here. 90% of MMA fans are spoiled with the production values the UFC has pushed to the fans, and they are accustomed to seeing undercard action when it permits.
Some would say that's a bad thing because there's no innovation, but innovation is always there. The problem here is that the model the UFC is using works, and Strikeforce isn't following suit.
What does Strikeforce need to do in order to create a better product that promotes these fighters? Personally, I'd rid the promotion of the idea of bringing in local promoters to fill the undercard. Fill the undercard with lower-tier fighters or up-and-coming prospects. Strikeforce has enough to fill a Challengers' card here and there, and then try to convince Showtime to allow some airing of the quicker fights. It'll market guys the promotion may use later on a major card, and it could actually open up more options for them down the road.