When Zuffa made the announcement late last year that the WEC and the UFC would fold into a single entity, many fans applauded the move with giddy excitement. It was an opportunity for some of the most exciting fighters on the planet to get what they deserved. Better pay, more money from sponsors, the spotlight of a bigger stage. It was assumed by some that those things would grow abundantly under the bright lights hovering over the Octagon.
Ten months and ten main card fights later, the UFC's newest weight classes haven't made the massive breakthroughs that many fans expected. The product sells itself, and all any fan would have to do is have one of these great scraps put right in front of them to get hooked, right?. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case.
The projected 350,000 to 375,000 pay-per-view buyrate for UFC 132, an event headlined by Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber, suggests that the "more exciting, fast-paced" fighters that fill the lower weight classes have a long way to go. The amount of buys for the event likely put the UFC in the black for the event, but I wouldn't bet that it was because of Cruz-Faber. Wanderlei Silva vs. Chris Leben and Tito Ortiz vs. Ryan Bader were smartly promoted above the headlining bout between the two bantamweights, thus making the decision to buy the card based more on established names.
The obvious "excuse" is that there hasn't been enough time for the two divisions to connect with fans. Only ten bouts have been featured on the UFC main cards, only a handful of preliminary bouts on cable television. The divisions only recently got a chance to shine by being the focal point of this season of The Ultimate Fighter. Surely, things are looking upward for the lighter weight classes now.
I'm not so sure however. Current UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz talked about the situation in interviews following his July 2nd victory over Urijah Faber, stating that the UFC is trying to help their weight classes become more appealing to fans. Headlining the UFC on Versus 6 card was one of those ideas. A free TV card headlined by champion Dominick Cruz and title challenger Demtrious Johnson should help bolster interest in the division.
Unfortunately, the event will air on Versus, a network that draws half the viewership of Spike TV for entire events. Spike TV has drawn two times the viewership for two preliminary bouts consistently. That doesn't account for the fact that the card's most promoted fight has been, you guessed it, a heavyweight bout. The marketing has also been lacking, and media interest is obviously low on this one.
Under the current model, fighters like Dominick Cruz and Jose Aldo remain in the catacombs of public interest. There isn't a consistency to the fights in either weight class. We get a few here, a few there, most on the Facebook preliminary card. Hardcore fans already know about these fighters. Casuals don't, and they drive the sport. Perhaps a few meatheads know who Urijah Faber and Dominick Cruz are now, but I can guarantee that those thoughts will escape their minds quickly as time drags on.
What needs to happen in order to make the bantamweight and featherweight divisions more appealing? What would make casual fans excited to see a UFC bantamweight title fight? Ten fights in ten months is obviously a major problem in promoting the weight class, and The Ultimate Fighter's ratings are on par with recent seasons. Those fighters aren't going to experience any more interest than the fighters from season thirteen. Exciting fights on the show can go a long way to helping the weight classes as a whole, but it certainly isn't going to act as a tipping point.
In reality, I'm not convinced there is a clear cut answer. The perception that their exciting styles would bring them massive success were overblown greatly, and exciting fights taking place on main cards of UFC events within those weight classes still hasn't bolstered interest. One could say that the marquee fights in heavier weight classes on the same cards overshadow those fights, and the media's focus of the recognizable, established names plays into that theory.
It's a debate that has interesting points to discuss, but I'm stuck on a much simpler, cultural obsession in combat sports. Bigger, stronger, faster is a consistent mantra in the United States. Why do you think the NFL is so popular? As we saw this past weekend at UFC 135, the UFC chose to feature two heavyweight bouts on their main card in the mile-high city of Denver. Both fights featured gassing, hulking heavyweights slugging it out in the most untechnical displays of pugilism on the face of the Earth, yet many of casual viewers I spoke to thought they were awesome fights.
The bantamweight and featherweight divisions aren't just facing problems related to minimal real estate on event main cards or lessened exposure due to poor placement. Culturally, I think there is some relevance to the theory that a majority of casual fans still have an obsession with bigger, beefier weight classes versus the alternative. I don't think there is this burning desire to watch the lighter weight classes because one fight within the confines of the 135 or 145 lbs. weight class was "off the hook". I think that thought process is still reserved for the traditional, heavier weight classes or well-established divisions like lightweight.
Will that ever change? God, I hope so. Unfortunately, there isn't a way to change perceptions overnight. The product, in this instance, doesn't sell itself as many fans thought it would. It will take time, just like any other endeavor aimed at building interest. Slow and steady will win the race for the UFC. We just need to give it some time.