Imagining The Future of the UFC's Expansion

{Introductory note- this post started with an idea that ended up getting bigger and bigger until it grew to a scale that lies far outside my comfort zone and sphere of knowledge.  I recognize that there may be issues here that my limited purview has prevented me from considering, and I look forward to discussing these with you in the comments. Also, this is my first effort at writing a serious piece, so any feedback would be appreciated.  Enjoy...I hope}   

Yesterday, Leland Rolling provided an excellent piece regarding the UFC's ability to continuously re-stock divisions that seemed to be landlocked by dominant champions or lack of depth.  Here's his grand finale:

The UFC's progressive tactics to solve the woes of stagnation within the ranks of their weight classes has been amazing to watch. At every perceived obstacle that we believe is insurmountable, the UFC finds a way to break through it and cure the problem quickly. The depth of the heavyweight division and the lack of challengers to St. Pierre and Anderson Silva are problems that were solved this year, and I find it hard to believe the UFC won't be able to solve these problems again in the future. Division stagnation? It's a theory of the past.

     At some point, the practice of buying out competitors will become either impractical or impossible; the former due to the cost of acquiring promotions with few UFC level talents, and the latter because some promotions will never sell (as Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney insists) and even if they do, at some point, you will run out of competitors to buy.  So, Leland's piece got me thinking about some other ways that the UFC can deal with these cyclical issues, which will surely rise again.

     An issue intrinsic to the act of expansion is the development of talent. One of the financial advantages of purchasing rival promotions lies in the fact that the fighters who are acquired have been developed on someone else's dime.  No matter the level of the fighters brought over, for the UFC, the development of the talent is a zero sum commodity.  As I write this, I have two conflicting thoughts: 1) The method which the UFC currently employs to develop talent (scouting smaller organizations->sign promising amateurs->undercard fights) is viable in the  long term.  As the sport becomes more popular and the generation of athletes who have been training MMA since they were kids comes to fruition, even more athletes will choose the sport, and thus more prospects will be available to this existing structure.  2)  As the UFC further establishes its dominance at the top of the industry, smaller organizations may find it more difficult to operate in the changing landscape of increasing demand for high-level MMA.  So, other methods of discovering and developing talent will need to be implemented.  The first point may very well be true, but let's take a look at some potential alternatives to the existing model.  This piece will document one method of discovering and developing foreign talent, while domestic efforts will be examined in subsequent posts (if I don't get booed off the stage after this one).    


     The UFC follows MLB and the NBA's lead of opening a network of MMA youth academies in countries with untapped talent pools.  


     While the UFC does have a chain of fitness gyms in the U.S. (3 locations, and coming to your town soon!- h/t  to BE reader Discman2), they could open up a whole other market to themselves by subsidizing the foreign facilities in emerging markets.  These facilities, like MLB Academies, can provide training and room and board to kids aged 11-17.  Potential foreign locations include The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Philippines, Venzuela, Russia, Holland and Brazil. Development in any sport is often a numbers game. By creating their own facilities, they would ensure access to a large number of potential athletes at a very young age, while also exposing the sport to a potentially large and lucrative viewership.  Obviously, it will take years to see tangible results within the divisions of the promotion, however,the potential windfall in talent could be huge and potentially fuel the next stage of growth.  This model would also be sustainable long-term, as evidenced by the increasing, foreign demographics in the NBA and MLB.  In the short-term, the UFC could potentially enjoy getting their product on television in a previously unreachable market, or increase the viewership by enmeshing themselves within the fabric of a community which already has access to the UFC.

     The potential cost and obstacles of such a model are, admittedly many and each host country would have unique issues.  In order to undertake such an endeavor, Zuffa would have to outlay a large amount of money (though potentially not as much as one would think, as I'll discuss below) without an immediate or even short-term return on investment.  Before a shovel is even put in the ground, the company would have to clear the red tape of international expansion.  Connections would have to be made, hours of meetings would have to be scheduled (and we all know how much Dana White hates meetings) and political capital gained.  Foreign governments would be rightfully recalcitrant to give a foreign entity access to its youth and communities.  One element that would assist in this process would be to provide a public service along with the training.  This could be education, after school programs or community works.  Zuffa could remove a difficult issue if it were willing to completely fund these endeavors themselves, without asking for any funding from the local government.  Once you place an expectation or request for even nominal funding from a government, before even getting to the door of the legislature, you will experience push-back from the local entities which are already receiving government money.  Examining the exclusive issues that each potential host country presents would be impractical and frankly, way beyond my purview (yes, I realize that I'm pushing it with the existing content).  However, there has been a recent development that could be considered a pilot program for such an academy, and while the country will come as no surprise, the sport which has recently broken ground there may.      

     The Tampa Bay Rays recently won an extended battle by securing moneys from Brazil to open a baseball academy in Marilia, approximately 4 hours north of Sao Paulo.  The largest obstacle that they faced was resistance from the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation, which had been the beneficiary of the public funding, but whose growth stalled once baseball was dropped as an Olympic sport.  In order to get their foot in the door, the Rays had agree to assist the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation with their efforts to promote the sport in-country (a saavy move, as surely the academy will benefit from such a project).  As a result, the Brazilian government is funding the majority of the starting costs.  Here's ESPN's Jorge Arangure Jr.: 

[T]he Rays have so far spent zero dollars on the construction of the academy. The $2.5 million project has been subsidized by both federal and local funds. Tampa Bay's only financial commitment is for the upkeep of the academy, which could be anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million per year, for the next five years. Tampa Bay won't even have to spend a dime on players' medical care since all Brazilians are covered through the country's universal health care plan.

     Now, admittedly, I'm not an expert on Brazilian public policy, but if Brazil was willing to lay out the funding for baseball, a sport previously only popular with the Japanese ex-pats in the country, they may be open to a sport that has been a part of the nation's heart for decades.  The primary selling point to Brazil and any other possible landing spots for such academies is: opportunity.  Soccer, Volleyball, Baseball, Cricket and other team sports only have a certain amount of roster spots available at the highest levels.  MMA has no such concrete restrictions.  Sure, there's a limit to the number of roster spots, but it's flexible based on the amount of cards planned.  And like an ouroboros, the amount of cards that can be planned is related to the amount of fighters under contract.  In order to fulfill Zuffa's ultimate vision of putting on events every weekend around the world, fighters from contenders, to gatekeepers to undercard levels are all needed. 

     While Brazil already has an existing infrastructure for fighter development, if the training is free and attached to the UFC brand, it instantly becomes an attractive destination.  While MMA will not be a revelation to Brazilian athletes like baseball, if you can begin to attract kids who lacked the funds to begin training, you're opening up an untapped talent pool and doing so in a nation of over 200 million people that is about to host it's first UFC card in 12 years as well as an Olympiad.  The results of such a model, in multiple countries could create a self-sufficient, river of talent that could produce the kind of growth necessary to ensure the sports ability to cement itself in the mainstream.  Of course, there are elements beyond the production of talent that may prevent the sport from cracking it's ceiling, as detailed here and here; but securing talent on its own, without having to pay premiums for existing promotions in exchange for one-time infusions of fighters could prove to be more productive and economical.    

     In my next piece, I'll float a few ideas for ways to cull talents domestically.   

\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.

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