I hate articles about what MMA needs to do to gain mainstream acceptance, because I personally believe that MMA is a mainstream sport. NFL teams call their offensive strategy "Ground and Pound", MMA stars are in Movies, TV shows, and now UFC is pulling over 8 million viewers for its first show on Network TV. Many people disagree, and point to things like random interviews on the streets of LA to show that people just don't know that much about it. But, if you have ever seen some of Jay Leno's segments interviewing people on the street you wouldn't think that things like our form of government or the political process are mainstream either. So despite my hatred for these types of articles I came across something the other day that inspired me to write one of my own.
Dana White has always stated that his ultimate goal is for the UFC to be the biggest sport world-wide. I think there is something that UFC could influence to not only end the mainstream debate, but start putting itself into the biggest sport world-wide debate. Every year Forbes list the top 50 highest paid athletes in the world. It is a combination of Salary, and endorsements with almost all major sports represented, Basketball(15), Baseball (11), Soccer (6), Golf (4), Football (3), NASCAR (3), F-1 (3), Tennis (3), Motorcycle racing (1) and boxing (1). Last year the highest earner was Tiger Woods with about $75 million, which is saying something after the year he had.
Zuffa is now a billion dollar business that is hosting events, and on TV around the world 3-4 times a month. I think that it is time to see a UFC fighter on this list then we can officially end the debate about MMA being Mainstream. If it was big enough to start paying its high end talent comparable to the other sports around the world, then in my mind the debate would have to end. With guys like Jon Jones, Brock Lesnar, Junior Dos Santos, and Frankie Edgar getting ready to have big years could one of them crack the financial code to get to this point. With the NBA losing roughly 20% of it's season, the price to get on this list will probably go down. I'm not sure though if the UFC financial structure will allow it.
Things we know that could keep UFC from opening up the check-books.
- It was reported about a year ago, that they have a $450 million loan that they are still paying off between now and 2016
- Zuffa is still paying lobbyist to run a major promotional, and now legal effort to get MMA legalized in New York.
- Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta were $40 million in the hole back in 2005. They are making money now, but I think it is very understandable that they build up a hefty war chest in case business drops off. (I always think of what they will have to do in case someone dies in the Cage especially on National TV) That is just smart planning. Dana made a reference to this not too long ago in an interview about fighters pay.
- UFC is secretive about their pay structure, and just how much these guys all really are making we don’t know.
- Dana wants the UFC brand to be the draw, more than the stars. This is understandable seeing how far and fast some stars can fall.
What would a fighter have to do to get on this list
- Fight at least 3 times as a Champion, or have a significant PPV percentage attached to their contract.
- Gain Outside endorsements
o GSP has Gatorade, and Under Armor
o Jon Jones, and Urijah Faber have KSwiss
- Market themselves and their fights above and beyond what UFC will do for them.
- Chael Sonnen, and Brock Lesnar are examples of guys who can work a mic and get a few hundred thousand more buys on a card. Get out to ESPN, and on the radio to sell the fight. But then most importantly, win the fight.
Who are the Fighters most likely to crack this list first
Why he will
- UFCs biggest draw, is always in the 1 million range, and topped out at 1.7 mil buys for the UFC 100 card. He was rumored to make at least $7 million for that fight alone.
Why he won’t
- Personality prevents him from getting involved with the very lucrative outside endorsements.
- Lesnar’s health and recent struggles against elite competition have lead to an inconsistent schedule.
Why he will
- Very active and dominate Champion
- Potential Jump to HW could do very big PPV numbers as a Champion v Champion scenario plays out.
- Has made the statement "I just want to be a good Company Man" Dana likes this, and realized that this guy could be one of his biggest draws for the next 10 years.
- Outside endorsements, he already has solid contracts and that only figures to grow.
Why he won't
- Needs those PPV numbers to be around or above 1 million consistently to get the kind of paydays needed for this list.
- After the Evans/Davis winner and Hendo the division is pretty much cleaned out. Who would be Jones' 3rd big fight that could capture a large audience?
Why he will
- His return from an injury and right into a super fight for the title against an interm champ should be a mega card.
- Being out of action for almost 18 months will allow fresh, exciting challengers to develop. There was a perception building that GSP had cleaned out the division.
- Already a major draw who consistently is in the 1 million buy range
- Outside sponsorship like UnderArmor, Affliction, and Gatorade pad his in cage earning
Why he won't
- GSP hasn't been the most active fighter over the last few years. Only fighting 1 or 2 times in a calendar year.
- A series of decisions has some fans asking where the finishes are, especially when he dominates so thoroughly
- Will he be able to stay healthy?
Junior Dos Santos
Why he will
- Have you seen his highlight reel? If that doesn't make people interested, then nothing will
- He is officially the baddest man on the planet right now, and could hold the title for awhile
- Brazil is one of the fastest growing economies in the World. They have the World Cup in 2014, and Olympics in 2016. If JDS is able to establish himself as a star and land some endorsements in Brazil before and during these events, it could raise his profile around the world as people come in and out, wondering who this guy on TV, billboards, and advertisements is.
Why he won't
- Holding on to the HW title has proven to be a difficult task. With powerful wrestlers, other elite strikers, and 4 oz gloves his reign could come crashing down
- The opposite is that the HW division is the shallowest in the sport. JDS could quickly clean out the division and face the perception that he is fighting bums. This would hurt his PPV sales
- JDS is learning English, but still needs to improve it to sell himself to American fans. Americans are still generating more revenue for UFC than the rest of the world combined.
Others in the running:
Anderson Silva - If he hasn't done it by now, I just don't see it happening. After Sonnen, the big name fight probably just won't be there to generate the PPV numbers. Silva also seems to be battling injuries on a regular basis these days, and hasn't been fighting very regularly.
Frank Edgar - Just not catching on with the fan. Also, I could see this title bouncing around over the next few years, preventing the champ from becoming a big time draw.
Jose Aldo - Similar to JDS. He could pull it off with a little help, but needs to stay active and increase his PPV numbers.
Nick Diaz - It is all about the Money for Diaz. If he could win the interim title, and hold on to it when GSP comes back then he could be in this mix. Nick likes to fight and stay busy. His fights are also entertaining, and he is a polarizing figure which is good because people will pay to watch him win, and lose. I don't see too many big corporations offering Diaz sponsorship deals. This guy is a loose cannon, and not someone you want tied to your name for good.
Joe Benavidez - Just wait until the world gets a good look at the Flyweights. This will probably be the most entertaining division in the sport, and many of the top guys have not fought, so there will be some great scraps that are not rematches and the division won't be cleaned out for a while. Who knows if UFC will give Flyweight the push it needs, but 1 well timed fight of the year candidate on FOX could launch a guy like Joe into the Mainstream on PPVs, and endorsements. Joe may be able to capture that Mexican demographic that has supported so many boxers before him.
Cain Velasquez - Can he regain his form, and force a re-match with JDS. The re-match is at least 2-3 fights away for Cain, and he needs to look great in those fights. If he does get back there it will be back to the struggle to gain the Mexican fan base, and bring them over to MMA.
Henry Cejudo - After winning the freestyle wrestling Gold medal for 121lbs in 2008 at age 21, Cejudo was bored with the sport. If UFC, WEC, or Strikeforce had a flyweight division at the time I'm convinced that he would be competing in MMA right now. Instead he began boxing for the better part of 2 years and thought about making an Olympic run in that sport, before just recently getting back on the mat in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. You can't tell me that Dana White isn't drooling over the thought of promoting a Mexican-American, who could potentially have two Olympic Medals for the US (At least 1 gold), fighting in his newest division. Give Cejudo 2-4 years to become a factor, and the timing could be just right, as UFC wages continue to rise.