By: Mitchell Stucky
There are plenty of illusions in sports that fans allow to assume reality. We’re all guilty of, at one time or another, telling ourselves that this year is the year for our team. I know I’ve convinced myself on numerous occasions that my team’s latest acquisition would not be a bust even though he is known as an underachiever. And who hasn’t truly believed that their guy could defeat the heavy favorite? That’s what being a sports fan is all about. There is one misconception, however, that we all happily accept as truth because, without it, sports would mean nothing. We can’t be faulted for accepting the blatant deception as athletes themselves fall victim to it from time to time. The professional sports that we live and breathe are not sports at all. They are all businesses that make business-driven decisions to attract the casual fan.
It’s when the blurred line between sport and business comes into focus that we are reminded who the true players in the game are. The men that wear the suits to each sporting event determine the outcome more directly than the people wearing mouthpieces and Under Armor. This realization has shocked the MMA world with the recent dismissal of Jon Fitch and a slew of others from the UFC. The threat of at least 100 more fighters being released has given each and every fighter in the UFC stable a wake-up call.
You might think that the saying, "It’s not personal. It’s business," might have snuck its way in there to Dana White’s favorite phrases along with, "The reality is," or "What people don’t understand is," or "F#$% $@&*," at his latest press conferences or media scrums. However, there has been nothing from the UFC president to indicate that it is just business. Instead, he is doing his best to make it clear to fighters that performances like Dennis Bermudez vs. Matt Grice will keep you in the UFC fold while a win like Brendan Schaub’s over Lavar Johnson might relegate you to the unemployment line. These kinds of comments coupled with the dismissal of Jon Fitch and Jacob Volkmann, two successful UFC veterans with less than exciting fight styles, show that it is actually about business in a connect the dots kind of way.
Follow me through a brief history of the UFC to connect those dots in an effort to understand Dana White’s recent fighter cutting tirade.
In 2001, Zuffa took over the failing UFC. Dana White and the Fertitta brothers saw the potential in the company and made a lucrative, but risky investment. That much you know. That year, the UFC put on 5 events with a tremendous 67.5% of fights ending without the judges input. People were tuning in to see the wreckage, but not at a high enough rate. The next two years saw the business decline to the point of possible bankruptcy. The finish rate was great, but there was no one watching.
Then, in 2004, in a last ditch effort at success the Fertittas pitched an idea to Spike TV that would revolutionize MMA as we know it: The Ultimate Fighter reality series. The benefit from the Spike TV deal was two-fold: it gave the UFC accessibility to a broader range of fans and allowed fighters to build a name. The year after the debut of TUF, the UFC doubled their yearly events from five to ten. The year following they added seven to make 17 events in a year. They were growing faster than they anticipated, but continued to deliver their product with 221 KO’s and submissions to only 93 decisions. As a fan in this time, you had a 70% chance of watching a fight end inside allotted time. Not only were you shown more fights a year than ever before, but you were shown stoppages at an alarming rate.
With name fighters, fan accessibility, and a fantastic product the UFC had garnered enough money to rid themselves of their biggest competition, PRIDE, by buying them out. Not only did they take away the only organization able to contend, but they slapped a UFC logo on all of PRIDE's best fighters (with the exception of Fedor Emelianenko). They were also able to compound on the deal by showing PRIDE’s events on cable TV and making a profit on PRIDE DVDs. With a big opponent gone, tons of money, and the likes of GSP, Wanderlei Silva, and Randy Couture competing in the UFC, the company seemed unstoppable. In 2007 and 2008 the company still boasted stoppage rates of 62.6% and 68.2%.
In 2009, with Strikeforce still viable competition, Bellator emerged from Viacom’s pockets. Now there was a company with money that could contend with the UFC. Unfortunately for the UFC, from 2009 to 2012, there were a fair amount of fights that left fans dissatisfied like Rashad Evans vs. "Rampage" Jackson, Yushin Okami vs. just about anyone, and Jacob Volkmann vs. well, again, just about anyone. They were continuously making money, but their product was suffering.
In that span, Bellator quietly maintained a finish rate of 60.3% of fights there on MTV2. In the same timeframe, the UFC’s finish rate declined to 52.2% marking the lowest rate in its company’s history. In fact, in 2011 only 50% of the fights were stopped by loss of consciousness or submission. If you felt bored as an MMA fan during this time and weren’t sure why, that’s why. To be fair, though, not every decision is boring, but the business heads know that the average fan would prefer to see a devastating knockout to 15 minutes of two men trading chest sweat. And therein lies the problem for the UFC.
The UFC knows exactly what it did to get to the forefront of MMA. It had a meticulous path planned and capitalized on every opportunity to become the heavyweight champion of MMA, knocking out each contender left and right. However, the UFC is faced with a considerable opponent in Bellator. From the demeanor of the company spokesman to the way title shots are decided, it’s clear each has their own style. And as we know, styles make fights. This sport was founded to discover just which style would prevail.
The tale of the tape shows that both companies are loaded with money. Dana White recently lauded Bellator’s riches. If Viacom is a parent company, then Bellator has daddy’s American Express. It isn’t like Zuffa is exactly broke either though.
While other MMA organizations have tried to go straight to network television unsuccessfully, both the UFC and Bellator have utilized Spike TV as a stepping stone to stardom. As mentioned previously, the decision to put the Ultimate Fighter reality series on Spike saved the UFC from certain bankruptcy. It allowed the UFC to build fighters’ names and gave fans the option of seeing MMA on cable instead of having to pay for a pay per view or rent the latest UFC VHS tapes. As of January of this year, Bellator began its run with Spike TV. They have plans to launch an MMA reality series later this year as well. Clearly Bjorn Rebney, CEO of Bellator, has been paying attention. It’s impossible to predict Bellator’s future just yet, but considering Spike TV’s track record with MMA it’s hard to imagine they aren’t extremely optimistic.
With name fighters and fan interest, the UFC relied on its product to deliver. And deliver it did. It has built up household names like Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva, and Jon Jones. However, the recent decline in finish rate does not appeal to the oh-so important casual fan that MMA executives desire. With a better finish rate, Bellator comes out looking impressive. This is the area of the UFC’s game that Dana White intends to repair. If the UFC’s "exciting fights" aren’t actually all that exciting, what’s to stop a viewer from shelling out pay per view dollars to cozy up with a little DVR’ed Bellator MMA?
Like a game-winning shot, a last second touchdown, or a penalty shot, the casual fan enjoys a fight ending knockout. Eliminating wrestling heavy candidates from the UFC stable will make room for the surplus of Strikeforce fighters as well as appeal to the bottom line of the UFC. If you do not have a belt around your waist and are not actively trying to stop your opponent, you are not safe.
It’s a business move through and through to cut any fighter not keeping company numbers up. There is nothing wrong with that, but it just may not be what a fan wants to see. Of course you’ll wish Jon Fitch the best in his next organization, but you’re not going to stop watching the machine that is the UFC. How could you give up Brittany Palmer?
As a fan, seeing the business side of things can take away from the illusion that the sport offers. However, you can’t blame the UFC for what they must do. There is a company creeping up on them with a fantastic product using a similar business model right down to the balding spokesman. Zuffa will do what it has to in order to maintain position.
Bellator’s worked its way through its own tournament style by outlasting EliteXC, Strikeforce, PRIDE, and the WEC. Is the UFC scared of Bellator? Probably not. But, you’ve seen what happens in MMA when a champion takes an opponent lightly.