Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, is more than three years into the World Extreme Cagefighting experiment on the Versus network. And, three years in, it's hard to label the WEC as anything other than a box office failure.
That's a hard statement to make. The WEC is a promotion that is close to my heart. My favorite promotion for years was Japan's SHOOTO, another organization that focused primarily on smaller fighters. Like SHOOTO, the WEC has produced fight after fight that will rank among the sport's very best. Fighters like Jose Aldo, Urijah Faber, and Dominick Cruz continue to amaze us with their stunning combination of athleticism and technique. The problem? These are performances in a vacuum-great feats of prowess that no one is watching.
The facts speak for themselves. Compare the viewership for the WEC's inaugural show back in June of 2007. That card, headlined by Urijah Faber in a gimme match with the obscure Chance Farrar attracted 416,000 viewers. At the time, MMA Weekly considered that a qualified success-competitive with Elite XC on pay television, but less than half of what the much reviled IFL drew on My Network:
The average audience of 416,000 people for WEC 28 on Versus is slightly higher than the average audience of 365,000 viewers who tuned in for the premiere of EliteXC on Showtime back in February. The ratings for EliteXC were considered excellent for Showtime, given the fact that the premium cable network is available in just 15 million U.S. households, whereas Versus is available in 70 million households.
The average audience for IFL Battleground in its first ten original episodes on MyNetworkTV was 998,000 viewers...
Three years later, after an eternity to build a brand and an audience, the WEC drew 100,000 fewer fans for their most recent event, an epic rematch for the bantamweight title between Cruz and top contender Joseph Benavidez. It was the least succesful show in the company's history, but hardly an aberation. In fact, no show without the company's top star Urijah Faber has managed to top 450,000 viewers in a year's time.
There's really no disputing, at this point, that the WEC is failing to grab a hold on the MMA marketplace. The question is, why not? We'll explore some possibilities after the break.
1. Urijah Faber was, and remains, the WEC's only breakout star. The promotion pushed him hard, both to fans and the MMA media. Faber was at ever UFC event where the media was, ahem, encouraged to interview him and give him plenty of press. Since he's a dynamic fighter and a charming guy, it worked. A star was born in his fights with UFC washout Jens Pulver, which only encouraged the WEC to push him even harder on fans.
The WEC put all their eggs in a single basket-and then Mike Brown punched the Easter Bunny in the face and stomped on the eggs. Twice. As if that weren't tramua enough, Jose Aldo told the fans there was no Santa Claus. The WEC made Faber their brand-and it cost them. He wasn't as good as they expected or hoped and now the promotion's only star is struggling to stay relevent.
2. Many promotion's would learn from their mistakes and recognize that pushing Faber at the expense of everyone else in the organization was a bad idea. The WEC, however, was enamored by the short term effect of Faber's sudden stardom. Instead of a more even handed approach, one that focused on a variety of fighters and building a company image as a provider of great fights, they tried to create an ethnic Faber.
All the perks and opportunities Faber had to atttact a media following at UFC events were taken to even further extremes with bantamweight Miguel Torres. Torres was another fighter with charisma to burn and the WEC did a good job of convincing fans and press he was one of the best fighters in the world. Before a Torres fight there was often a media blitz. Torres would be dragged out to meet the press-his opponent nowhere to be seen.
Unfortunately, like Faber, Torres had built his record on overmatched fighters who didn't approach world class. When he fought the best in his division in the WEC he failed-and then failed again. No lessons had been learned from Faber. The men who followed Torres at the top of his weight class were a collection of "who's that?" and "what was his name again?" These were the fighters that could have been introduced to the fans-if only the promotion hadn't had a singular focus on Faber at featherweight and Torres at bantamweight.
3. Perhaps, just perhaps, MMA fans simply aren't ready for smaller fighters in the spotlight. Many fans are refugees from professional wrestling-and in wrestling everyone knows that bigger is better. As much as it pains me to say it, it's hard to project a tough guy image to fans when you're smaller than most guy's girlfriends. You can't hide what the fighters are when a ref like Herb Dean towers Faber or even the lady referee looks like she could handle any of the guys in a fair fight. Instead of hiding from the fact that their product consists of guys too small to play football as anything other than a kicker, the WEC should embrace it. Why not a motto like "WEC: Little Guys, Big Fights."
4. The WEC is the closest thing we have in the MMA world to pure sport. The matchmaking makes sense and fans are treated to the best guys in the promotion doing battle on a regular basis. But where is the sizzle? Where MMA has succeeded worldwide we've seen a product that combines pro wrestling style feuds with fantastic in-cage action. The WEC is delivering one element of a succesful product better than anyone in the world-but it's only one element.
The promotion needs to turn their fighters into recognizable personalities-badly. We've seen The Ultimate Fighter succeed beyond anyone's wildest imagination, creating stars by letting fans see the human side of the fighters. The WEC has to do something similar to build personalities-and then pit them against each other. The closest they've come is with "Cowboy" Donald Cerrone. Marketed as 'Don Frye's slightly slow son' the lightweight is the best character in the WEC. Unfortunately, he's nowhere near the top fighter. The WEC needs 20 Cerrones and they need them immediately. Otherwise a stagnant promotion will continue to struggle. And a struggling WEC doesn't just hurt Zuffa-it hurts any other promoter looking for a television deal. We need the WEC to succeed for the sport to grow.