Thirty something days into the year and with 4 events in the books the UFC are on track to reach the 50+ events they announced for 2014. After yet another night of ‘guys fighting’, it is clear that the UFC is not firing on all cylinders when it comes to marketing their fighters or their events. The fight promotion has effectively become a fight planning company. With at least a 1000 fighters entering the cage in 2014, even for hardcore fans it gets difficult to keep track of everything that is happening in and outside the cage.
One way to bring a more cohesive structure to the extensive roster of fighters and events is to introduce the idea of fight teams. This is by no means a new idea, but developing it further might help solve some of the more obvious problems that are present in the current MMA eco-system.
Recognisability and marketing
The UFC roster currently holds 447 fighters, even with 500 fights in 2014, that means there is little opportunity for most of them to make a name for themselves. At the same time there are already some well known fight teams: American Kick Box Academy, American Top Team, Team Alpha Male, Jacksons MMA, Blackzillions, Nova Uniao, Tri Star, Pit Elevated, Serra-Longo, etc. Being part of a fight team can lend essential recognisability to fighters who have not yet broken through in the public eye and it gives known fighters an additional angle in building their brand. The importance of the fight teams can be increased by making it part of the fight narrative; including team affiliation in the tale of the tape, the ‘road to the octagon’ and the bruce Buffer announcements, team rivalry story lines. The teams themselves can increase their exposure by focussing on creating a clear team identity; team shirts, team sponsors, fight shorts, octagon banners, etc. At this moment the Blackzillions seem to be the only team that are creating a clear team identity with a logo, team shirts and team sponsor.
With team affiliation becoming more prominent in MMA, responsibilities that now lie with the individual fighters and the UFC can shift towards the teams. At media scrums Dana White keeps not knowing answers to questions at about individual fighters, nor does he seem to care. It seems more logical that fight teams become the go-to-entity for information about fighters but, like Dana White, they will have to actively get out and be available for the Media.
Another thing that is more naturally coordinated at team level is fighter development. Teams will have an interest to maintain the quality of their pool of fighters to protect their reputation and their long term economic health, they will scout for new talent and develop and protect this talent much like other regular sports teams. The team environment can provide a young fighter with gradual skill development and assist in building his/her fighting career and because the teams represent a larger group of fighters they have more expertise and bargaining power with fight promotors to get the contracts, fights and conditions they want.
500+ fights in 2014 means about 2 fights per fighter, with a fight camp typically lasting about 2 to 3 months that means that for 6 months a year a fighter is not preparing for his/her own fight. That time can be used to work for the team and as such should be paid for by the team. Members of a fight team have year round employment with a base income. Fight teams have several other means to generate income. In football ( the version that is played outside of the US ) clubs like Bayern München are generating 20% of their income from merchandise. Creating a clear image with logo’s, team colours, shirts and shorts seem to be a good way to start to generate some additional income for the teams and fighters. The increased profile of the teams will also help to attract bigger team sponsors. Another way to generate income for the teams and their fighters is to have a public gym where non-professionals can come and train, masterclasses by professional fighters not currently in training are a big sales point the teams have over regular MMA gyms. Being part of a fight team can provide fighters with the additional financial security they need to be fully focussed on fighting. The structured environment might help prevent the excesses that seem to happen to some of the fighters on their down time.
Elevating training standards
The need to prevent injuries during training has unfortunately been once again highlighted by the injury of Julianna Pena. The UFC has to pay another medical bill, cancel fights and a fighter is two years without pay. The situation is not sustainable, already have complete events been cancelled and have fighters been denied insurance cover on the basis that injuries were pre-existing. It is only a matter of time before insurance companies will claim gross negligence when it comes to injuries that happen during certain training practices.
Professional gyms should be expected to create a training environment that minimises the risk of injuries happening. This means bundling knowledge on what methods work and what don’t, having the right equipment and most important of all having the right attitude when it comes to fighter safety. At this moment, when injuries happen, they have little consequences for the gyms where they happen. It is the UFC and the fighter that suffer the most. When fight teams become an ubiquitous part of MMA events, the teams have a vested commercial interest in keeping their fighters safe, in- and outside the cage. A team having a fighter under contract is better suited to protect fighters against themselves since it reversers the fighter-team hierarchy. In the future the UFC might even go as far as to only provide health cover for those fighters that train at a team that meets certain mandatory minimum safety standards.
While putting additional emphasis on fight teams will not be a panacea for all that is wrong it could help to solve some real issues that are currently plaguing MMA. Fight teams can provide additional recognisability and structure to an ever expanding fight roster and calendar. They also could help improve fighter safety, training quality and provide an additional source of income.
Of course fighting is not a team sport and there will always be those, who like Ronins, will not feel at home in any team. Tying up fighters in teams will also exacerbate the problem of fighters not wanting to fight their own teammates. On top of that the UFC might not be happy to see fighters join their forces and collectively negotiate terms and conditions of their contracts with the UFC.
However with one promotion holding all major events but not being capable to sell individual fighters, the fighters need to do something to break this spell. Fighters or their teams do not need permission from the UFC to start marketing themselves in unison and to reap the rewards of that effort. The Blackzillians, American Top Team and Team Alpha Male are teams that have been creating a more distinct team profile and with some added focus they could very well be leading us into a new era in MMA.