UFC 144 Roundtable: Can The UFC Succeed In Japan?

via cdn3.sbnation.com

Tim Burke: Dave Meltzer reports that UFC 144 ticket sales are doing very well (currently at 17,000 with a 3.1 million dollar gate). Does this lead you to believe that the UFC could have a bright future promoting events in Japan, or is it meaningless considering it's a sold show (meaning that the UFC was paid a flat rate for the show and ticket sales don't matter to them)?

Josh Nason: It's tempting to say, "Yes! Of course!" but let's see how things play out with the crowd, the event, how everything goes this week, etc. I think in general, fans assume that ticket sales equal success when there's a lot of other factors that go into a successful event. Having a full house is a positive though and I'm intrigued if it will be a quiet respectful crowd like in PRIDE or otherwise. That could make for an intriguing viewing experience at home.

Matt Roth: I'm honestly not sure. One one hand I think that having fans in the arena is a good thing, especially with the start time of like 9:30 AM local on a Sunday. Saitama Super Arena is 40 minutes outside of Tokyo which means that people want to get there to see the fights. On the other hand it's still hard for me to say this is anything but a vanity project. Yes it evolved from "We're running simultaneous PPVs" to just the solo show, but with the current MMA market in Japan, there's really no reason to believe they will be returning anytime in the near future. And by near future I mean in the next three years.

Tim Burke: I believe that the curiosity factor is the main reason for the ticket sales here, and it'll be an uphill battle for the UFC to maintain this sort of interest in Japan, especially with no Japanese fighters in the main or co-main event. But it has to be a positive sign to see that Japanese fans do still care about MMA. The market is there, if the UFC plays their cards right. Sold show or not.

Ben Thapa: At the same time, this can be viewed as an investment in the future of Japanese MMA, as the UFC is far, far less shady than PRIDE was in its heyday and how DREAM and K-1 have been handled of late. Despite this not airing live, the cordiality and respectability of the organizers, show runners and others could go a considerable way towards showing people in Japan that fights can be done on a big scale in a yakuza-free manner that is entertaining and features Japanese fighters battling at the highest levels.

The Japanese media may not be as aflame about this event as the Brazilians are, but this event could pay off nice dividends in the future. Instead of a "We came, we saw and we conquered" moment, it could be "We came, we saw and we went away leaving behind good impressions of ourselves on this live audience and whatever TV masses we reach".

We can build on this! - Herman Edwards

SBN coverage of UFC 144: Edgar vs. Henderson

Ben Thapa: Of course, I am doing a disservice to organizations that are righting themselves or have been chugging away solidly for all these years. DEEP, Shooto, Pancrase and the others have all built more solid frameworks to develop existing talent than many areas of the United States. Unfortunately, the Japanese gym culture is screwed up in a way that is truly hard to call "talent finding" or "talent building" and that is going to hurt.

At least we have Ryo Chonan and his full time MMA gym. "Chenge oppernent! Honebackle is influenza!"

T.P. Grant: I think the Japanese MMA fan has been starved of top flight fighters and have been misunderstood by MMA promoters. There seems to be a general sense that Pride was only successful because of the spectacle it created with intros, music, fireworks, giant monitors and rules that geared fights towards finishes but don't forget there were a lot of elite talent in that promotion. Promoters think that Japanese fans need Japanese fighters to cheer for, but again looking back many of the most popular fighters in Japanese MMA history have been foreign to Japan: Rampage Jackson, Ken Shamrock, Cro Cop and Wanderlei Silva.

I think the UFC is doing this the right way in coming to Japan. Don't try to be Pride, just be the UFC. The focus in the UFC is all on the fights, so bring elite fighters. Ticket sales to me are a sign that the hardcore Japanese MMA fans are excited that a big time show and elite fighters have returned.

Anton Tabuena: The UFC hasn't been there in years, and ticket sales doing great in Japan simply because there are enough hardcore MMA fans in country. No one can really put much meaning in to it aside from that. The Japanese MMA scene is still declining, and what the UFC has shown isn't really enough to grow the sport for the long term. With the UFC in the country, it's easy to assume that that the interest in JMMA is high, but the reality is, after they leave, everything will dry up and return to how it was.

Don't get me wrong though, if they visit Japan again a year from now, I think they will still be able to get similar numbers (like a sold-out arena), but again, that's just because they have enough hardcore fans that they can milk. The sport isn't flourishing, and this isn't a case of like Brazil, where you can see massive interest and a fanbase that keeps growing, nor is this a case of them being able to regain the level of interest that PRIDE once had.

Kid Nate: couple of things 1) according to Zach Arnold the sold show deal with Dentsu is for a series of fights over the next couple of years. 2) many of the biggest Pride-era MMA events in Japan featured no Japanese fighters in main events.

K.J. Gould: I think we need to forget about 'Japanese MMA' as anything meaningful beyond nostalgia. It's a paid show as mentioned, and it'll be interesting to see how many of those sold seats actually have butts in them come fight time. For the first show back the novelty might be enough to fill it, but future shows done at early AM hours in Japan to cater to the PPV prime time in North America might not be so great.

By far the bigger picture is 'Asian MMA' both in terms of television revenue - assuming the PPV model doesn't work in Asia like it does in North America - as well as the live show and merchandise revenue, which is where the UFC can clean up if they price it right.

The international tours WWE does makes for a significant part of their revenue stream with their domestic PPV shows being down year on year. Even with UFC's downturn in the last couple of years due to various factors, their domestic PPV numbers is still thought to be larger than WWE's global PPV numbers, and that's probably true of Boxing as well considering how many PPV cards UFC puts out.

Ben Thapa: On a more serious note, Dentsu is apparently a top of the line media negotiating company and with the might and power behind the UFC, they were barely able to get a sniff in the TV market. Why is this so? Are the TV execs so confident in the various soothsayers that yell MMA is dead in Japan or is there some level of racism and/or exclusivism going on? Where is the adventuresome and fearless spirit that Sakuraba supposedly instilled in so many with his death defying bouts?

Fraser Coffeen: Ben - the cynical answer to why the TV market is an issue is that, as was pointed out above, the UFC is trying to run things above the board without shady Yakuza influence, and that hurts them.

I guess I view this as no different than any new(ish) market. They'll draw well the first time, but the real proof comes in when they return. Is it one time nostalgia that is bringing fans out? And will they have a good experience, or will the early morning show be just too much of a pain for them? I think that's the real question. They're definitely making choices to maximize the show's PPV appeal, but those choices also hurt the live experience. That's not a bad idea, but it could hurt their next Japan show's live draw.

K.J.Gould: I wonder if Gaijin companies always suffer in Japan without a Japanese figurehead to represent them. As good as Mark Fischer can be, I get the feeling in Japan - which has historically always had a strong sense of nationalism - he's always going to be up against that particular roadblock.

Plus the Yakuza issue as mentioned, which makes working in Japan even more pointless when you have better long term options in the rest of Asia.

Dallas Winston: I'm fascinated to see how this show is received in Japan. The UFC's purchase of Pride left a bad aftertaste because it unfolded more like assassinating the competition than bolstering their roster with a host of elite fighters and staking a claim in a new, lucrative market.

The oft-scrutinized decline of Japanese MMA was triggered by Pride's dissolution and there seems to have been a tangible divide between North American and overseas MMA. C'mon, son ... "we are all one." Dana and Lorenzo have opened up in recent years and divulged that they were sappy Pride fanboys just like many of us were, so I'm sincerely hoping that this show is a success and that Japan and its fighters will be an influential partner to improve global MMA rather than a separate faction with emaciated potential.

Furthermore, I'd actually love to see the UFC alter their repetitive (and near-stale) formula and add a little Pride flavor to their Japanese shows. Random ideas are letting Lenne Hardt introduce the fighters before they walk to the cage, perhaps splice in a few pyrotechnics and/or bring back the legendary "ramp" from Tito Ortiz's heyday. I think it was obvious that Strikeforce was catering to the Pride nostalgia by accenting their shows subtly with some of the Pride-inspired theatrics, and a slight deviation from their format and paying tribute to Japan/Pride would be a welcome change.

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