Shawn Jordan and Cheick Kongo taking a breather during UFC 149 at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday, July 21, 2012, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
You'll have to excuse the negativity here. I generally try to avoid being overly critical and focus myself on the positive side of things. And I don't believe in piling on the criticism again and again. But UFC 149 was bad. Really, really bad. And in the wake of this event, plus a lackluster UFC 148, plus a bad UFC 147, plus a let down in Jones vs. Evans, we're looking at a real rough patch of UFC shows. Of course, just complaining gets you nowhere. The impotant part is to ask why and to learn from what you find out.
So, what can the UFC learn from UFC 149? Why did this show turn out so terribly?
The most common, easy answers are a) injuries, and b) over-saturation. That's where most of the finger pointing goes. But I don't 100% buy that. On the main card here, the lone bright spot was Chris Clements vs. Matt Riddle - and that was hands down the most injury plagued, not ready for PPV fight on the card. Yet they went out there and delivered. As did the rest of the prelim fighters.
OK, so it's the fault of the main card fighters, right? They're being lazy while the prelims guys are working hard? Well, in this case, yes, but at UFC 148 the roles were reversed. The prelims and first half of the main card were all dull, with the emotion of the final fights being all that saved the show (your mileage on Tito vs. Forrest may vary).
The main problem at UFC 149 was an overall lack of urgency. From Hector Lombard to Tim Boetsch to Urijah Faber to Brian Ebersole to Shawn Jordan the card was filled with fighters who weren't engaging in the fight. And they all did so for different reasons - Faber is terrified of being Mike Brown'd again, Boetsch feared Lombard's power, Ebersole was so calm he became complacent, Jorden seemed dwarfed by the moment. Can the UFC stop this? Not really. They already do a good job incentivizing action, between their bonuses and the way they reward exciting fighters with high profile fights. Any further push in that direction devalues wins and loses too much for a sport.
So what can the UFC do? They can adjust fan expectations. And the way to do that is, in my opinion, simple. The UFC needs to move away from the PPV model.
They've taken strides with this over the past year, adding higher profile fights to their Fox and FX shows, and increasing the regularity of non-PPV events. But they need to take that further.
The reality of sports is that some games/fights/events will be boring. It's inevitable, and no sport can rid itself of this problem. Sports fans tend to accept this and move on - if a game stinks, turn the channel and tune back in next time for a better one. But when you ask fans to pay $50 to watch you've created different expectations. Now when the event is bad, you've let your paying customer down, and they're upset. UFC on Fox 2 was by no means a great show, but it was free and so there was not the same sense of tangible frustration you're feeling in the wake of UFC 149. Had this been a free show, fans would have complained a bit, sure. But they would have then just moved on. Now? Fans will, hopefully, be more cautious about spending that $50 next time.
Dana White has always said he wants the UFC to be as big as a major sport. To do that, they need to become a free sport anyone can watch. The PPV model can only take them so far, and it's now beginning to hurt them. And before anyone says "Well, it's working for boxing", let me ask - is it? Is boxing in 2012 really the sport you want to hold up as the gold standard for what works?
Of course the real trouble here is that, despite that frustration, PPVs still can sell. UFC 148 looks to have done over 1 million buys, making it one of the all time top UFC PPVs. And as long as they can still generate those kinds of sales on PPV, they'll keep using it. But they also will keep letting down their fans. And, in the long run, that's not worth it.
I applaud the UFC for actively working to bring more free fights in recent years, especially with the Fox deal. But UFC 149 showed that they need to take that further. Stop asking fans to pay so much for a product that can't always deliver. Be a real sport, warts and all. After all, that's what you've always wanted, right?