UFC 173 is right around the corner with a very solid main card featuring some of the MMA's best talents including Renan Barao, Robbie Lawler, and Daniel Cormier, and yet there seems to be very little in the way of excitement for it.
It being May means that it is about half a year into the Zuffa plan of holding over 50 events and I posed some simple questions to the Bloody Elbow staff:
Are we seeing signs of MMA fatigue? Are you feeling fatigued on MMA?
John Joe O'Regan: Yes we are, yes i am, lower than it was.
I do not understand the point of their saturation program except it being part of their transition into maxing out on the FOX dollar by becoming a 'content provider'
They are boring the shit out of their fans, this is readily apparent from the messageboards and so on.
Kid Nate: The motivation behind the over-saturation appears to be 3 fold:
1) Satisfy Fox and get those moneys
2) Expand globally and kill any potential regional competitor before it gets significant
3) Drown Bellator in a sea of MMA they won't be able to keep their head above.
Its interesting but I expect web traffic and interest for Bellator 120 to far exceed interest in UFC 173.
Zane Simon: I would have to say that I'm definitely seeing it, if not quite feeling it. My own consumptive interest keeps me a bit more invested in minor fighters and minor fights, which in turn keeps me from getting too burnt out. But, I definitely see more complaints about product quality and quantity than ever. It feels like the average hardcore fan is barely finding time for the UFC anymore and that is of course the goal. If you barely have time for the UFC, you absolutely don't have time for anything else. We used to talk about a lot more of the smaller shows even in our articles. The 50 events a year schedule almost forces us not to. The market flood is real, and it's working.
John Joe O'Regan:I wonder if it is chemotherapy of a kind - poison the body (market) so bad that the 'tumors' (rival orgs) die off and then hope for regeneration / return to full health?
But mostly i think they are just collecting the fox dollar.
T.P. Grant: I'm seeing it on a personal level at the gym and talking to my friends who are casual fans, interest in the UFC cards is becoming pretty rare there. I hear a lot of pining for the days when there was a Strikeforce or Pride to act as the UFC's foil.
The biggest blow, aside from the one to card quality, is to marketing. They have fallen back even more heavily of their pre-made templates for event ads of highlights, Rogan screaming, and rock music. I honestly can't tell you who is main eventing a given card unless it is happening this week. And I actually agree with Nate the Bellator interest for web hits will outdraw UFC 173 because it was something different, and MMA fans desperately want that.
I feel like fatigue will mount, the only "exciting" event I see on the horizon is UFC 175, and that is one major injury away from falling back to the norm. I feel like late July and August could be very low months for the UFC, and then when baseball playoffs start up and Football is back, it is possible their numbers take a big dive.
Brent Brookhouse: There have been some really good UFC events lately, even ones that we may not have expected to be particularly good. But the fatigue exists on a micro scale as much as a macro one. Want to watch a UFC event from start to finish? Hope you're ready to start watching at 6:15 on Fight Pass, then 8 on FS1, then 10 for the main card on either FS1 or PPV and that'll last until 12:30 or 1. So you've got these events running almost 7 hours and they either feature a ton of decisions (as was the case in the early part of the year) which often aren't particularly exciting, or a bunch of finishes which means a ton of filler to try and kill time on the broadcast.
When it was once every few weeks, that wasn't as big of a deal as it felt like "an event." Now it just feels like your Saturday night job. And I realize that I'm saying that as someone for whom this is a job, but the last 4 months have really changed my excitement level for events. If they'd cut 3 fights from each card I think it'd feel a lot better in terms of investment AND we'd lose the now far too common fights that don't belong on a UFC card. But that means less fights to go around, less fighters on the roster, less bodies to fill out the endless schedule.
Even Bellator could stand to do something like ditch the heavyweight division to trim the fat on their shows. They have their own pacing issues, but their heavyweight division is so brutally bad that we just sat through a lead-in fight for their first ever PPV which featured Kongo fighting a guy who hadn't won since 2009.
There's so much mediocrity mixed in to this hyper-aggressive schedule that it enhances the burnout for me.
Anton Tabuena: As Nate alluded to, this is a necessary evil. Hardcores who watch every single bout may eventually get tired from all the fights, but this is targeted towards breaking ground with casuals, and also lessens the fans' need for other "competing" promotions.
North American fans may complain about the quality of some of the international cards, but even those small fight night events help greatly towards their expansion goals and also builds stars in the region.
Also, there's almost zero downtime between UFC events now, and that dead air that used to be between huge UFC events are now gone.
Because of that, some fans won't need to rely on other promotions to get their MMA fix, and traffic numbers back it up. Shows that usually would be "must watch" events during non-UFC weeks, now lose a lot of their buzz since Bellator, ONE FC, and other promotions are more likely to host shows on the same week as the "the big show".
Either way, it's a smart move for the UFC, and even if some of the most hardcore fans will complain it's not something that is going to change. If you're burnt out, then just skip their prelims and just watch the interesting main card bouts instead.
Brent Brookhouse: I don't understand the idea that this has any benefit for casual fans as casual interest would seem to be at an all time low for the "modern era." What used to be the floor for PPV buys is now the average with Jon Jones doing 350,000 to defend arguably the most prestigious title in the company. I used to be inundated with questions from people I knew in "the real world" about shows or wanting to come over for events, now no one really cares. Is that anecdotal? Absolutely. But the viewership numbers aren't.
The "dead air" as you called it, was actually something that served to build anticipation.
Anton Tabuena: I was talking about breaking ground with casuals outside the US. The PPV buys in the US may be plateauing (or declining?) with all the events, but all these 'low quality' fight night events are truly doing wonders for their international expansion plans.
As for that dead air, it used to be a place where other 'rivals' would get all the exposure and fan interest since there literally wasn't anything on for avid fans, but now a lot of people are starting to pay less attention to ONE FC, Bellator or other promotions.
Fraser Coffeen: Agreed on your last point Anton - a company like ONE FC is not getting nearly the attention Dream was once upon a time. That is indeed due in large part to the UFC over-saturation, and I do think that's intentional from Zuffa. The problem is, I think they are wrong that this is a good thing. MMA is still not mainstream enough that its longterm success is guaranteed. A sport like baseball can have its ups and downs but it's not going anywhere. MMA is not that way at all, and this over-saturation could be really detrimental in the long run.
As I see it, the UFC's goal right now is the kill interest in other promotions. But what they're actually doing is killing interest in MMA and, by extension, their own brand.
Brent Brookhouse: I'd need measurables to determine if there are actually "wonders" being done. Because when I look at web traffic and breakdowns of traffic by region, I don't see a noticeable difference other than that the peaks are lower than they used to be across the board. But that's not a great measurable for casual interest, so I'm not really sure what measurable there is to use to truly know.
I am, of course, a snobby American who thinks that the world revolves around us and that North America is without a doubt the most important thing to the sport's bottom line, so if the sport is suffering here it has to have a HUGE boom internationally to make up for that in my mind.
Kid Nate: I think Anton's saying it benefits the UFC to drive down interest in potential international rivals. Remember that PRIDE is by far the biggest rival they've ever faced and the UFC especially fears competitors outside the US because they don't have to use the MMA United Rule set and a more fun rule set is the biggest existential threat to the UFC -- other than killing interest in MMA period which they may be doing accidentally.
I was just outlining what it appears is driving Zuffa's strategy, whether that strategy will end up killing themselves and the whole sport is a different question.
Unlike boxing mixed martial arts has always been a freak show -- boom and bust in Japan, multiple booms and busts in Brazil, now we've had a boom and maybe a bust in the US.
Mookie Alexander:MMA fatigue goes only as far as how much you're willing to watch, which makes it no different than the NFL to me. Everyone's threshold is different.
I think one of the best and worst things to happen to the UFC was making all "dark" fights broadcast live. It stretched the UFC viewing window even longer as opposed to the old days where you were begging for finishes on the PPV/Spike TV/Versus cards so that you could see 1-2 prelims make it to air. While it's fine for prelim bottomfeeders to get some attention and broadcast exposure, it has undeniably exposed how bad the UFC's pacing is and how drawn out these events can get. Prior to UFC 103 they had never put on a card with 13 fights, and now they make 13 a regular goal.
Personally? I've skipped out on a lot of the prelims this year and don't pay serious attention until the final 2-3 prelims before the main card. It's the same to me as wanting to watch all Sunday NFL games but wanting nothing to do with some garbage Thursday night match-up.
What seems to be the problem is that more MMA is not better MMA, and this doubles for Bellator too but I'll focus just on the UFC's side. I seriously doubt Cody Donovan gets a UFC contract in 2009, but more shows means guys who are clearly not cut out for the highest levels of the sport are getting in whether it's justifiable or not.
That's what I believe is the biggest issue the UFC has with some fans right now. The quality of their product should be so much better -- and it's still obviously better than any other MMA organization -- now that they've acquired WEC and Strikeforce talents, but it just isn't. And their insistence on making horrid daytime Fight Pass shows as having relatively equal importance to their PPVs suggests they are unwilling to change their system for the better.
Patrick Wyman: As far as I can tell, we're actually talking about two separate but related problems here. The first is the one directly implied by the question - whether the amount of MMA on offer is burning out the most dedicated fans - and to that I think the only reasonable answer is "yes". My friends at the gym who used to watch every show are probably consuming slightly less MMA than they used to despite the higher volume of events, to the point that there are rising fighters (Conor McGregor, Gunnar Nelson, etc.) whom they've never heard of. These are really hardcore fans who don't have it in them to keep up with the full breadth of the UFC's offerings, much less anything happening outside the bright lights of the UFC.
The second implication of the higher volume of cards has to do with the homogenization of the product. As a few people have pointed out in this exchange, the UFC is becoming synonymous with MMA in general. Whether you think that's good or bad depends on how you feel about what the UFC is putting out there, but I think there's room for something different despite the packed schedule. A lot of the reaction - both positive and negative - to Bellator's PPV offering was the result of it being something different than what we're used to.
Anton Tabuena: They're just starting to build local stars with these non-US cards and international editions of The Ultimate Fighter. It's going to take time before they can make a dent and even reach the interest level that is seen in the US, but make no mistake, the awareness in the sport is growing rapidly in countries where just a few years ago, wouldn't even know or care about what this sport is.
Brent Brookhouse: I'm sure we disagree here, Anton. But I think some of the expansion efforts cheapen the product. TUF: China was abysmal, to put the UFC stamp of approval on any of those guys makes no sense to me, nor does wasting . If they'd maybe partner with someone to help build the sport in regions like China, that'd be one thing. But they're not, they're taking bad product and putting the UFC name on it. It feels like the UFC is pushing so much internationally without having their own house in order and that's a set-up for disaster as the money comes from here. Investment in the sport from American casuals gets the Fox deal and it gets the Fox deal made better eventually. It drives PPV, it drives sponsorship money. All of that should be priority number one.
But I've driven this car really far away from the discussion about burnout, so maybe we should steer it back that direction
Kid Nate: That's a really good point. They're gambling with their #1 asset their brand name by associating it with inferior product like TUF China.
Mookie Alexander: Lest we forget that there's an 0-1 fighter (aged 30) on TUF Latin America, and Jessica Rakoczy (1-4, 1 NC) was on TUF 18 and I believe is still ranked in the top 15.
John Nash: What makes more, a gourmet restaurant serving specialty burgers with ridiculous prices and lines to be seated out the door or 100 franchise restaurants charging a little less and always with some tables available? The UFC has gone the way of McDonalds: they are your ubiquitous MMA fast food chain.
If people don't like that comparison we can use Cirque du Soleil. In the early 90s when the Montreal circus came to Los Angeles they set up a tent on the Santa Monica beaches and it would be the must see show of the year. Everyone in town would be talking about it or making plans to see it, Now that they have 20 shows permanently performing in casinos or touring around the world it isn't that special. Does it matter that people don't think Cirque du Soleil is as cool anymore? That less people are interested in seeing it? Maybe but people still go see it just not as many and even if it is only selling half as many tickets per show there are twenty show touring at any time so overall they are still making a lot more. From a fans point of view i'ts probably not as exciting as it was but from the owners POV it's going great.
Interest in the UFC has noticeably waned in the US. It's a consequence of the UFC using this market to finance their global expansion plans. The individual oversea shows probably don't make them much - or anything - but it helps market the UFC to the locals who in turn tune into their tv programs which in turn allows the UFC to ask for higher license fees. And all the while they are denying space to any potential competitors that could drive up wages, the biggest expense in the biz. So they make more while making sure costs stay lower.
Now that I think about it that sounds like the WWF's expansion plan during the early 80s when they took over the territories. I should have used that as my analogy.
Anton Tabuena: TUF saw Bonnar and Griffin engage in an all out brawl that threw all technique out the window. Although they were really good fighters, that fight didn't showcase talent in MMA, but it did serve it's purpose in developing awareness. TUF: China was apparently watched by an average of 10 million Chinese people. That's decent numbers considering it's a country totally new to the sport, and while they still didn't get their Griffin vs Bonnar explosion, I can't really blame them for trying.
If they're able to replicate it for any one of the markets they're trying to break into, it would already be a win for them. These shows are in fight pass anyway, hardcores outside of that market who are tired of these shows can always skip the entire card.
I do understand about the burn out concept, but this move is completely logical for the UFC. I don't see why they should stop based on a few people feeling burned out as the potential for gaining a new market is just too good to pass up.
Zane Simon: I have to agree. I understand the burnout. But I think, from within the bubble, it's hard to get a handle on just how little our burnout matters. I still talk to people regularly, who have no clear concept of what the UFC is. If making it more ubiquitous is more likely to make them familiar with the product, driving away a portion of the hardcore fanbase from watching every show just isn't as important at that point. Add to that that their strategy really does make them feel like the only game in town and even the hardcore fans can't just walk away without walking away from the sport entirely.
There burnout is real, but like so many things in MMA, I think it's importance is overstated by the few people actually paying attention.
Kid Nate: It's not just hardcore burnout, it's over-saturation. Once a TV product is so ever-present no one wants to watch it, that's the worst possible thing for UFC, Zuffa and MMA. Mixed martial arts is not some standby sport with a glorious tradition and deep roots. It's a recent fad and can quite easily die off entirely. The UFC should proceed accordingly.
Zane Simon: But is oversaturation really a problem when a ton of people still don't really even know quite what it is?
T.P. Grant: The UFC is doing more events, more press, and has more fighters. And they are not doing significantly better in terms of buys, gates, and interest then they were seven years ago. Is working harder to basically stand still a sign of a successful strategy?
John Joe O'Regan: I find it hard to believe that anybody who was in any way inclined towards a product like the UFC's would not have heard of it by now, in the USA. There surely cannot be that much more market penetration to be done in North America.
Kid Nate: YES.
The same factors that kill hardcore fan interest are making the product less and less appealing/hard to follow to casual fans and preventing new fans from getting interested.
A lot of marketing is exposing your product but overexposing a product can be death too.
The original UFC boom was a combination of dramatically increased exposure via Spike but also an awesome product that had been bubbling underground for a decade and a small but insanely fanatic hardcore fanbase that was eager to evangelize and spread the word.
They've got the exposure now as of the Fox debut everyone in the US who was potentially going to be a fan had at least seen UFC/MMA at some point. The problem is since then they've watered down the product so its getting less and less interesting even to the already devoted.
Long long ago UFC PPVs actually brought in new fans via UFC parties and word of mouth. That's no more. The Fox cards were supposed to bring in masses of new fans but demonstrably are not. TUF once brought in new fans but now that its on FS1 it barely holds on to the old ones. Oversaturation is one of the deepest holes for a product or entertainer to dig itself out of, ask MC Hammer.
Zane Simon: I see the oversaturation in the market. I think it's just a problem of a desire to achieve the saturation that more mainstream sports have. Anyone inclined to fight sports almost certainly is familiar with the UFC at this point (at least in the US), but everyone, inclined or not, knows what boxing is, what baseball is, what hockey is. That's what the UFC wants. They want ubiquitous recognition.
John Joe O'Regan: That's an excellent point re killing their own word of mouth marketing off by alienating the hardcore fanbase, I hadn't thought of that.
I've always felt the UFC has a huge disregard for the thoughts and opinions of the hardcores. I suppose that is often with good reason, given the idiotic business practices sometimes suggested on the forums etc, but I also think that you lose your hardcore audience at your peril - if they go silent, it will have an effect.
Kid Nate: The hardcore fanbase is caught between Scylla and Charybdis.
One the one hand because of the bust of the flying skull t-shirt douchebag "I trane UFC" fad MMA is spectacularly unhip right now. It was one thing to introduce MMA to an audience that hadn't heard of it or maybe remembered the old PPV spectacles. It's another thing to make people forget their annoying cousin/in-law/work acquaintance who went over the top with the Affliction t-shirts and HGH.
On the other hand with the UFC doing everything they can to alienate and discourage and even insult the hardcores. Why work so hard to support a company and its products when it goes out of its way to express its disinterest, even vocal contempt for you?
Paul Gift: I see it as being mostly an incremental revenue/profit play, international expansion, and the targeting of different types of customers. If stars drive a bunch of the traffic and they've got the same amount of them (in fact, they're losing them) while the other shows still make good money, it makes sense why they'd want to do 50 shows instead of 25. Money, money, money, money [singing].
International expansion means the U.S. numbers we read about have less and less influence on the UFC's decisions. Are we still their biggest market? I believe so. But what's going on in Mexico, Brazil, the rest of Central and South America, EMEA, Asia-Pac? Those things are definitely having bigger pull in all the UFC meetings.
The offering of PPV, FOX, FS1, and Fight Pass along with two prelim types and a main card lets people decide for themselves what type of viewer they want to be. The downside is it probably has watered down a lot of main cards. I like having all the options but it's definitely hard being a big fan and wanting to watch everything. For me, the TUFs have been where I've made sacrifices to save time.
There's probably also an element for staking a claim as the top brand in a lot of international markets, but you don't need a lot of shows to do that. I'm not as sold yet on it being a way to bury Bellator because reducing quality probably isn't the best way to bury a rival. The best long term strategy? The different product offerings, probably yes. The multitude of shows, I can see good arguments both ways.
Anecdotally, I bought Bellator this past weekend partly because I was missing the UFC. I totally get the feeling of there being too much, but in a weird way I find myself expecting it and missing it some weekends. But I don't work the events an always have the option to DVR.
Fraser Coffeen: Roughly 30,000 words ago, John brought up the WWF expansion in the 80s, and he's right - that's a very good parallel. There is clearly a lot of pro wrestling Vince McMahon style of business behind Zuffa and there always has been. So here's the tricky part with that...
During the 80's, Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon made this huge wrestling boom. The WWF went global, became mainstream, etc. This is very comparable to the UFC of the past few years. But then the bottom fell out. Your big stars (Hogan, Savage, etc.) went away. New stars like Bret Hart and Diesel weren't drawing interest (sounding familiar yet?). The company and the sport were fading. So what saved them? The competition with WCW. Without that competition, there's a decent chance there is no WWE on your TV screens right now.
So maybe the issue is not over-saturation. Because when wrestling rebuilt itself in the mid-late 90's, that thing was saturated beyond the point of comprehension. In that case, saturation was a huge help with both companies advancing the other. The problem the UFC is facing is that same-ness and overall low quality of product. You can get away with putting out hour after hour of content that fans just can't get enough of. But oversaturate with a product that fans are not super excited about you have an issue. And right now, that's the UFC.
Paul Gift: My last thoughts: the fans (rightfully) care about the quality of each and every show while the UFC is developing new areas - resulting in Te Huna headliners and such - and getting money through volume. I think John's Cirque analogy is a good one.
They're also expanding their roster a ton which helps keep young talent away from competitors.