The UFC has been on a bit of a hot streak so far in 2011. UFC 126 featuring Anderson Silva vs Vitor Belfort appears to have exceeded expectations on the PPV front. UFC 125 didn't exactly set the world on fire with its sales numbers, but the Frankie Edgar vs Gray Maynard headliner exceeded fans' expectations by a wide margin and set up a much bigger rematch at UFC 130.
But now as we roll into UFC 127 in Australia we are once again faced by the fundamental strategic dilemma faced by the UFC: how to develop new international markets for their product while remaining tethered to a single major revenue stream -- domestic PPV buys.
That is, the UFC needs to expose international audiences to their live product for their long-term growth but they have to do it on the backs of the North American consumer who buys their PPV's.
But -- and this is a really big but -- the international PPVs operate at a huge disadvantage. Because they must be held in odd time zones and far away from the American media, an international PPV is never going to do the same business as a comparable event held in the U.S. or Canada. This is the reason that with the exception of UFC 112,* we haven't seen a UFC title on the line in an international event since B.J. Penn vs Joe Stevenson at UFC 80 in January 2008.
That means the international UFC marketing machine always has to shuck and jive to drum up interest in the weak international cards and UFC 127 in Australia is no exception.
The angle they're working is that UFC 127 is a title eliminator event. Here's Marshall Zelaznik, the UFC's point man for international expansion talking to ESPN UK about the event:
"Almost every fight on the main card has real impact on what happens with the winner of that fight in their respective divisions," Zelaznik told ESPN. "We almost labelled the card "Striking Distance" because of it.
"Dennis Siver is on a roll, George Sotiropoulos has been around the top for a while and whoever wins is looking right down the barrel at one of the top two or three guys in the division as their next fight.
"So it's an exciting fight, but there's also so much on the line. George in particular has kind of been out-of-sight, out-of-mind, but if he wins all the talk will be about George deserving a title shot, just like the likes of Anthony Pettis have recently.
"There's so much left in this lightweight division, Pettis deserves his crack, but George has an excellent attitude. He just thinks 'my time will come', and he continues to make sure he improves so that he is ready when the time does come."
Wow. That's compelling stuff. If Sotiropoulos, a -500 favorite, beats Dennis Siver then he'll get to stand in line with Anthony Pettis, Jim Miller, Clay Guida and Melvin Guillard for a title shot that may materialize this year... or next.
There's also the B.J. Penn vs Jon Fitch headliner. Dana White has promised the winner a title shot. Too bad
it's already been announced Dana White has promised that if welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre beats Jake Shields at UFC 129, he'll move up to 185lbs to face Anderson Silva. Not to mention that White has already publicly promised Jon Fitch a title shot if he beat Thiago Alves at UFC 117 only to renege on the offer.
The UFC's original plan for the international cards was to broadcast them on HBO in the U.S. That would have been a perfect solution, but unfortunately that deal collapsed in early 2007 and has never been revived.
Essentially the UFC is doing their best to spread a mid-sized pat of butter over a very large piece of toast. Most of the time fans get a nice juicy bite, but sometimes we get a hard dry crust.
*Note: I initially didn't count UFC 112 as an international event despite its taking place in Abu Dhabi, because the UFC pulled out all the stops to impress its new 10% owners -- Flash Entertainment, the company owned by Abu Dhabi's ruling family.