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The IFL Equals The Future

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Here's another reason why the IFL is not succeeding: it's ahead of its time.  I'm sure many of you can't believe I'm saying that, but it's true.

Despite the mainstream coverage of UFC 71, the IFL did not receive a subsequent bump in website traffic or coverage (not of note, at any rate).  This may seem a little odd, but consider who's driving the UFC and MMA into the mainstream: new fans that are -for a lack of a better description - uninitiated when it comes to MMA.  These are the same people that booed Rampage and couldn't believe Chuck lost.  These are the same people that learn about UFC and it's fighters from The Ultimate Fighter.  These are people who just started watching MMA in the past year or so.  And just like the mainstream, they think - to some extent - "ultimate fighting" should be bloody, rough, and violent.  They boo the ground game and cheer the knockout.

So when the IFL elects to create a line of trading cards in association with Topps, you have to wonder who they are marketing to.  MMA is not so mainstream that elementary and middle school children are spending their hard earned allowance money on the newest Ben Rothwell or Chris Horodecki rookie card.  MMA is primarily a sport of and entertainment for adults, most notably 18-34 year old males.  That's not exactly a group that pumps money into the trading card industry.

So how does this indicate the IFL is ahead of its time?  To some extent, the IFL is operating on a business model and concept that treats MMA more like a sport and less like a spectacle.  I'm not suggesting the UFC does the opposite, but the IFL - like PRIDE - views MMA with a rare dignity.  Unfortunately, the IFL is mistaking the attention MMA receives for respect.  The mainstream pays attention to MMA, but they've yet to cosign on the views of the hardcore or longtime fans.  They simply aren't ready to treat MMA as they would any other sport - a contest of athleticism, skill, heart, technique, and elegance.  The UFC recognizes this and uses savvy marketing that doesn't exactly cross the line of pandering to violence and mayhem, but gets very close.  The IFL's first disastrous foray into television aside, that sort of marketing is mostly absent from the upstart group.  Why?  Because the IFL tries to be a MMA organization of fighters, for fighters.

The IFL is very proud of its record when it comes to treating fighters fairly and listening to what MMA insiders want.  As well they should be.  But there is a universe between what MMA insiders and casual fans want from MMA.  The IFL is treating the sport as those who love and know it the most would have it.  In this stage of the game, however, that's not what most "fans" are after.  I don't think casual fans of the UFC love to see blood and mayhem, but that's certainly part of the attraction.  And holding fights inside of caged fence doesn't hurt either.  The IFL, on the other hand, has tried to move away from the more traditionally questionable features of modern MMA, e.g., prohibiting the use of elbow strikes to the head and using a ring instead of a cage.  Reasonable people can disagree and I prefer the UFC for a variety of reasons, but it's hard to say the IFL isn't making good faith efforts to treat MMA a little more like a "sport" - with all the meaning, significance, and reverence that entails.

The crux of the issue is that's not what America is ready to see.  Worse, they may never be.  Even if America learns to love MMA like we do, the UFC will have long established itself as the king of the sport.  For better or worse, the UFC's version of MMA is fast becoming the gold standard, shaping and recreating the sport now and perhaps for good.

For now, MMA is more a violent sport than a technical sport in the eyes of fans and mainstream press outlets.  They're creating the narrative by which the sport gets described.  Maybe it's not so great we got their attention after all.