Strikeforce's open-mindedness to smaller media outlets just one of the ways in which they've been able to compete with the UFC. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
In any professional sport, public relations, marketing, and the use of mass media all have significant roles in helping an organization create new fans, keep loyal fans, and inform the consumers of their product to the happenings around their niche in the sports world. The NFL not only has their own campaigns to progress the sport of football domestically and internationally, but each team organization under its umbrella works hard to interact with fans. The same can be said for Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, NASCAR, and Major League Soccer.
Mixed martial arts works under a very different structure as promotions work in direct competition with one another without sitting under one giant umbrella. They are their own islands in a vast ocean, and the UFC could be likened to a large continent in that ocean with more resources than any other island. Both Strikeforce and the UFC compete to attract the birds to the most appealing pond within their tropical paradise, but as most fans know -- The UFC normally wins that war decisively.
But perhaps we're looking at this media war from the wrong angle. After all, stacking up the enormous capital that the UFC has at their disposal with Strikeforce's budget isn't a fair fight, but both media campaigns fight on the same battlefield. The major differences are in the television deals that both promotions have created.
Strikeforce's major outlet is Showtime with the possibility of future shows on CBS and a pay-per-view model in 2011. The UFC is featured on two cable stations, Spike TV and Versus, and one network channel in ION TV. They literally have 24/7 advertising via Spike TV at all hours of the day and night and the potential for Versus to become a prominent sports channel in the future via the Comcast/NBC merger. All of those stations are free or on an extended digital plan that most cable users buy. If that wasn't enough, the UFC's pay-per-view model successfully fills their coffers full of money consistently every year.
With that said, the media looks at the ratings in respect to their reach with viewers. Some outlets have proclaimed the end of Strikeforce with one glance at their viewership on any given event, but the fact of the matter is that these promotions aren't on a level playing field. Despite battling for the same demographic in the same areas of our consumer lives, Strikeforce isn't unrealistically eying 1.5 million viewers as a reasonable goal for their next Challengers card. They know better.
Some would say that this is a war that can never be won by Strikeforce, but this isn't a conventional war with battleships and marine recon teams. They don't need to win the war. All they need to do is hang around and steadily become more aware in the eyes of casual mixed martial arts fans. The goal here is to make a considerable profit, and while that may not actually translate to revenue on the level of the UFC -- it won't take as much revenue for Strikeforce to deem themselves a huge success in any given fiscal year.
Surprisingly, Strikeforce has done a great job in using the media to get their brand out there. Sure, the UFC is overwhelming and in-your-face at all times, but think hard about what Strikeforce does well. First and foremost, they've been able to garner nearly the same interest from media outlets as UFC events. They might not get the attention of the small city newspapers that the UFC garners or the respect of major outlets like ESPN regularly, but the same major players in the mixed martial arts community that we know, i.e. BloodyElbow.com, Sherdog, MMAFighting.com, HDNet, etc. all cover Strikeforce's events with as much news, analysis, and updates as an UFC event.
Why? Why would outlets that are obviously affiliated or "in bed" with the UFC cover Strikeforce equally? Because this is a business, after all, and the fighters that Strikeforce has attracted do have fans who are interested, even if it is a smaller number. Interestingly enough, some of the most well-known websites in mixed martial arts are banned from UFC events, but Strikeforce's policy is much more grassroots in that many smaller outlets are allowed to attend events and flood the market with original content and interviews. Exposure. Strikeforce gets more bang for their events with this open door to the media, and it costs them very little to nothing at all.
I suppose Strikeforce's best asset is their ability to sign talent that the UFC has been unable to sign. Fighters like Fedor Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem are good examples, but I wouldn't fault the UFC on staying away from co-promoting with M-1 Global. The UFC's own wish to push it's own brand hurts them a bit in this instance, although in the long run -- it probably doesn't matter. For Strikeforce, it does help them not only gain Fedor's services, but gain access to M-1's stable of progressing talent. But Strikeforce's more open contracts in allowing their fighters to compete overseas and in other promotions has been regularly brought up by their own fighters as a major perk, and the UFC won't ever allow that to happen.
Ultimately, this allows them to gain fighters that you would normally associate with a major promotion like the UFC, and that directly affects interest in the promotion. The buzz around the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix can lend credence to that idea.
Can Strikeforce compete with the UFC's media machine? Yes, they can, and they have been for a long time. The competition isn't on the level that most fans see as competitive, but in reality -- Strikeforce has a number of ways in which it has turned the tables on the UFC. It may not matter when we stack the promotions' ratings up against one another on a graph, but Strikeforce has some intriguing ways in which it grabs attention. Will it be enough in the long run to help Strikeforce sustain itself? 2011 will be a year in which we find out.