Dana White keeps a faux tombstone in his office. The dearly departed are listed in chronological order, a collection of the enemies du jour since White's UFC really hit its stride in 2007. As rival promoters come and rival promoters go, White adds new names, new notches on his proverbial pistol.
First there's the International Fight League, the sports first promotion founded by Kurt Otto and comic book magnate Gareb Shamus. They spent $1.2 million per show. They took in about $50,000 per show. It's no surprise then that the company lost more than $20 million in 2007 alone and quickly went out of business.
Next up was Elite XC, a ratings juggernaut but a business disaster. As we explained in The MMA Encyclopedia, not only did each Elite XC show lose a pile of money, they also made a series of bad business decisions that ended up turning huge viewership numbers into $55 million in losses. It wasn't just fight cards that saw the promotion mail out more money than they received. It was also:
...the acquisition spree that saw them mindlessly snatch up four promotions and invest in a fifth (losing $18 million on Cage Rage alone); the decision to build around a 30-something backyard brawler with no chin; or the allegations of fight fixing that helped to bring it all crashing down in the end.
Finally there was Affliction. The t-shirt company made an immediate splash, eschewing television and going right to pay per view. The shows were remarkable artistic successes and the company had its name and brand splashed all over the national media. But all those great fights came at a cost. The company spent tens of thousands not just on their main events, but even on their undecard matchups - the chance of long term success was nil.
Now White can add another unfortunate name to his tombstone of dead MMA companies. Because, intentional or not, the spectre of the UFC killed the WEC.
Lorenzo Fertitta likes to tell people that MMA isn't booming - it's the UFC that is succeeding, not the sport generally. They've built an audience almost from scratch, an audience that isn't necessarily in love with MMA, but in love with the UFC. People didn't want Affliction or Elite XC or the IFL. They wanted the UFC.
That's great news for the promotion and their parent company Zuffa. At least it was until the company wanted to expand, to promote a second brand simultaneously. Then things got a little dicey. Because while WEC may have had the same core group of executives, they didn't have something even more important. Three letters - U, F, and C. To many fans, nothing else matters. In the end, that attitude killed the WEC. Fans didn't care that it was under the Zuffa umbrella or that Joe Silva and Dana White were making the calls on the promotion's direction. To them it was just another MMA promotion.
The WEC competed against their sister company just like the others before them. Like the others, they came up wanting. It was bad enough when the WEC struggled in the ratings on Versus. The promotion and media allies were able to blame the network, an easy scapegoat until Zuffa tested the waters with the "Super Bowl of MMA." When the UFC aired on the same station the direct comparison left no doubt. It wasn't just that Versus was a weaker television partner than SPIKE TV, although direct comparisons show that to be true as well. The problem was with the WEC, a brand with very little identity or drawing power despite having had three years to grow an audience. The UFC at least doubled the WEC's average number on the network. Combined with a WEC PPV that managed less than 200,000 buys despite a Zuffa full court press on both SPIKE and Versus, and the writing was on the wall.
The WEC certainly had the pieces to make a better run at success. Part of the problem was simply bad promotion. The WEC picked their favorites and stuck with them through thick and thin. Both Urijah Faber and Miguel Torres were given a hard push by the WEC brass. They were flown out to the UFC bouts and media on hand were encouraged to interview them and give them some much needed press. WEC officials would often travel with Faber and Torres, defacto media tours that didn't include their opponents. It was a fairly unusual strategy and one that backfired when both Faber and Torres went on losing streaks that seemed to coincide with their grueling PR schedule.
The men who vanquished them didn't get the same kind of promotional push. In fact, even after it became clear Faber and Torres weren't the top fighters in their respective classes, they continued to receive the bulk of the WEC's promotional efforts. The other golden boy was Donald Cerrone. A colorful character with a penchant for exciting fights, the promotion saw big things in Cerrone. But when the stakes were highest, he was unable to deliver. A drug test failure and three high profile losses left one of the promotion's hardest pushed fighters challenging Cole Miller. While Cole Miller possesses a 6-2 UFC record and is a talented young gatekeeper/prospect for the promotion, he's not a top contender in the UFC lightweight division. For those counting at home, that's three years and untold promotional time on television used to build an opening match UFC fighter.
That's what's unfortunate about the WEC. The fights were always great, it was the promotion that sometimes left a lot to be desired. I think a failure was inevitable - the television time and opportunity were just too valuable to spend on a brand that could never equal the UFC's success. But the promotion could have provided some fighters with a springboard to UFC stardom. Instead, hand picked favorites have led to the WEC's very best fighters entering the Octagon to very little fanfare. It's clear that Faber and Torres will again be given a chance to shine. But under the UFC banner, the other guys will get a fair shake as well. It's a meritocracy. Fight hard and win. In the UFC that is enough - the company will do the rest.