UFC’s Ability to Build Stars Hindered by Myriad of Perplexing Problems

Jon Jones will likely become the UFC's next big star, but can they create more stars in the future? Photo by UFC.com

The discussion surrounding the realization that the UFC is experiencing a decline in their pay-per-view business from last year to this year has been exacerbated by the recent low point of UFC 136. The card, headlined by a UFC lightweight title showdown between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard, produced an estimated 250,000 buys, which makes it one of the worst PPVs in terms of revenue of the year. It was, however, one of the best cards in terms of action and entertainment value. It simply didn't have the star power or promotional power to garner more interest from fans.

The blame can't solely rest on whether Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard pander to the cameras. The UFC's marketing machine didn't promote an emerging star in Chael Sonnen at all in the lead-up to the fight, likely a decision based on the fact that his opponent, Brian Stann, was an American war hero who was immune to verbal jabs. Sonnen's own out-of-the-cage legal run-ins with the law were also probable reasons to keep him a low priority in the event's promotion.

Other reasons have surfaced that are broader in scope than the attributes of UFC 137. There is a general sense that the UFC may have oversaturated the landscape. The counterargument to that has been that the quality of events has been significantly lower this year due to injuries that have destroyed potentially solid revenue-earning cards.

The UFC's event schedule has also made it difficult, running sometimes two or three events in a short timespan. Obviously, that makes it tough on a fan's wallet, and it creates an environment where one must choose which cards to buy.

Some weight classes lack appeal with fans due to unfamiliarity or the diminished star power of their most prominent fighters. What about our cultural propensity to gravitate toward the heavier weights, or the fact that the UFC only fields a few proven stars? We could sit here for hours speculating.

Star power is a factor that has its hands in almost every one of those issues. It's an idea that can alleviate the smaller problems while singlehandedly propping up entire events. The perfect example is Brock Lesnar, a man who can bring over one million buys to an event by simply having his name on a poster and press release.

What do the current stars in the UFC have that others don't? Skill has never been the issue. It's always boiled down to what fighters can offer emotionally for fans. St. Pierre is probably the least reliant on that idea, but he's gained his status by nationalism, playing the good guy opposite the bad, and having a love-hate or loving relationship with every fan who watches the sport.

Lesnar and Jackson, on the other hand, have personalities that intrigue fans, crossover appeal to different segments of people, and the physical gifts to provide jaw-dropping entertainment. They fit a mold that is seen as the Holy Grail of what a star should look like.

Are there other fighters who possess those talents, and why isn't the current system in place to build those stars working? Out of an enormous roster of talent, the UFC has very few proven draws. We can eliminate most of the roster because they aren't featured, but that still leaves the upper-echelon talent in every division available for the star treatment. Why aren't there more stars then?

The UFC's model, as MMAMania.com's Geno Mrosko opined yesterday during a conversation we had on Twitter, is based on excitement, emotional investment, and worth-your-money performances. If you're paying $55 dollars for a PPV, it better deliver. Imagine if the NFL ran under the same model. As Mrosko stated, Terrell Owens might be the main attraction and defense wouldn't be as important.

What other sport shares this similar type of prioritization of appeal? Basketball. Personalities on top of exciting performances fuel interest in the sport. If that's the case for the NBA, then why can't the UFC create a bevy of stars with that same idea?

Every one of those sports has time on their side. Fanbases that consistently replenish themselves across generations, the build-up of an end goal for its participants and fans every year, and an established farm system that is not only creating talent, but driving interest and creating insane levels of revenue every year, especially in basketball and football. The UFC has none of that, nor will it likely ever have that sort of structure in place.

Those are long-terms problems. In the short-term, the UFC must still deal with the fact that they can't seem to drive interest in the ligher weight classes. The personalities don't exist to build within the current mold of how to drive stars, and nobody stands out as the man to break that mold. There is hardly any focus on personal stories either, which the UFC consistently fails to leverage. There doesn't need to be a Countdown show to tell those stories. There just needs to be a bigger outlet to get the message across to fans. 

How does the UFC progressively move toward a better way to build stars? The issues that plague it due to its uniqueness as a sport won't disappear, but they should only hinder it from maintaining fans across generations. Unless you're going to create teams based on fight camps or move to some sort of seasonal format like Bellator that actually has major relevance to the landscape of the sport, those issues are always going to remain unsolved.

Time is an issue that is solved by sustaining the business. As the sport progresses and remains in the public's field of vision, it will gain more fans because it is seen as a legitimate sport. The more understanding by the public that this is, in fact, a competitive sport, not human cockfighting, the more sports' fans will embrace it.

It will also expand the UFC's demographic from the 18-34 crowd to the larger 18-49 crowd. Eventually, we'll all be grandfathers watching this sport, and perhaps out kids and our kids' kids will be watching alongside us with interest. That expands the UFC's advertising potential and fanbase, adding years to its viability.

Time only solves the issue of creating an established fanbase and enough viability to intrigue a more general sports fan, or a casual fan, as we like to call it, in MMA's case. The new Fox deal should provide a platform for more creative means to promoting fighters. Crossover promotion of the UFC with other sports is key, and publicizing backgrounds of fighters and creating an emotional connection is something the UFC can leverage with the new deal as well. 

In the aftermath of the UFC 137 buyrate news, many pundits clamored that the UFC needs to do a better job of producing stars without actually providing ideas to solve the problem. I can't fault those people, however, because there isn't clear how to do that. The new Fox deal will give the UFC a significant tool to increasing its chances, but I don't believe it's going to create a blueprint that can consistently create stars for the UFC for years to come.

There will always be obstacles that stop the UFC from toppling the NFL, NBA, or MLB. The reality is that there is no obvious answer, only a myriad of perplexing problems that don't have the advantage of a historical counterpart to reference. At least not at the levels that Dana White is hoping to propel the UFC into in the coming years.

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