By: Albert Miller – Just call me Nostradamus. It was either late last year, or early this year, that Joe Rogan set the newswire aflame with the prophecy that he may be vacating his post as an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) color commentator. Even more recent, with the talks of a potential UFC sale, Joe Rogan has said that if the UFC gets sold, he’s gone. I’m not going to lie, the potential for a UFC sale is making me extremely nervous. There are talks that a company based out of China is leading the purchaser pack. China has one of the most complex economies on planet Earth, so if a business is successful in China, one has to believe that they’ve got deeply ingrained business expertise. But ask yourself: how many Chinese MMA promotions can you think of? I can think of one, Art of War, and I can’t recall that promotion being extraordinarily successful.
As much as I hate to be a doomsayer, I think we’d all benefit from preparing for a reality that the UFC may be purchased, and those new owners may not be successful. I’ve done a lot of meditating on the subject, and it’s abundantly clear that if the UFC were to cease to exist, that the global MMA landscape would change entirely. To elaborate on one man’s paranoia, we’re counting down five possible realities of what a post-UFC MMA would look like.
Note: This is my opinion and not a certainty. Please adjust your reaction accordingly. This piece is also assuming that Bellator and World Series of Fighting are not able to capture all of the market that the UFC would vacate. The theory model is that Bellator and WSOF would grow a little, but that they wouldn’t be able expand into the void.
No. 5: Casual viewership will drop – The entire point of a cable deal, for any sport, is to increase market saturation and exposure. What cable providers and programmers hope for is that John Q. Public is going to be flipping through the channels and get stuck on something he likes, hopefully on their channel. By the time the decision of Griffin vs. Bonnar (arguably the single most important fight in modern MMA history) was read, the incidental viewers had been in the millions. It’s that kind of viral programming that has made the UFC, and MMA by proxy, so popular to the public at large. A large part of the appeal is the packaging and presentation; there is a reason why MMA was called “Ultimate Fighting,” and that’s brand recognition. When we’re flipping through the channels, we see the octagon, the UFC gloves, and Reebok shorts, we know we’re watching the UFC.
If the UFC were to fold, there would be a big void in the cable and satellite presence of the casual viewer. Commercials for upcoming fights are gone, Sports Center coverage of the latest knock out is absent, and the casual viewer is going to lose interest. The reason that you’re reading this, and the reason I keep writing these is because we’re initiated. We have a love for the sport that has sent us to the welcoming arms of regional promotions, it’s why the UFC was kept on life support during the dark ages. If the UFC were to fold, the number of admitted MMA fans would drop, leaving the initiated behind. With casual viewership on the decline, a lot of networks may end up dropping their program in a panic tactic.
No. 4: Major boxing promoters will ramp up their programming – Before MMA became insanely popular in North America, boxing promotions weren’t challenged enough. The casual viewers that I’d mentioned previously, a lot of them were casual boxing viewers who were distracted by the shinier piece of foil (MMA being the shinier foil in this instance). IUf the UFC were to dissolve, boxing promoters would find themselves with an incredible opportunity. There would be a sizable programming gap and a lot of fans of combat sports that need to be entertained. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if boxing promotions like Golden Boy or Iron Mike promotions didn’t try to jump on TV deals, much like Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) is doing now. Clearly, MMA fans have demonstrated that we have buying power and that we will respond favorably to television programming. Hell, we’ll even subscribe to premium services. Should the UFC fold, boxing promoters (especially ones with deep pockets) will have an opportunity to set the foundation for a television platform, to get people to buy pay-per-views. For example: if Golden Boy has a regular televised boxing card, “Canelo” Alvarez is sitting in the front row, Genady Golovkin shows up; there are sparks, commentators hype it up. The cost of producing that television programming would be recovered in the pay-per-view buys that was just earned.
No. 3: Asian MMA Promotions will invade US shores – Assuming that Bellator and WSOF can’t step up and take the Lion’s share of the US MMA viewership, I predict that MMA promotions out of Japan will start making trips to the US. In Japan, their dark days of MMA were worse than ours. After PRIDE closed, Japan proved that their combat sport culture was extremely resilient. Since PRIDE’s demise, there was Sengoku, Yarrenoka!, DREAM, amongst others. The singular reason that Japanese MMA promotions could walk onto US soil and wrest the market share from Bellator and WSOF is that their particular method of promoting combat sports and their combat sports culture is loyal and dedicated. So, assuming the UFC folds, Pancrase could walk into the US and promote their tradition in global fighting; Rizin (which has a great relationship with Bellator and has had exposure on Spike TV) and put their promotional ability to work. The sobering truth of this is: I don’t think those promotions would be as successful as the UFC was. If Japanese promoters had the business secrets to make it big in America, I feel that it would have happened with PRIDE’s US ventures.
No. 2: Regional MMA promotions will rise to prominence – Vive la resistance! If the UFC folds and once the swelling of impact reduces, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of the regional promotions stepping up and claiming their piece of the pie. In my big book of doomsday visions, I see King of the Cage essentially becoming …king (in a regional and national sense). What may also happen is that regions will become territories; Gladiators of the Cage, Pinnacle FC, World Cagefighting Championship, Bayfront Brawl, and Strike Off FC would rise and cultivate a North Eastern territory. Xtreme Fighting Championship (XFC) may champion a South Eastern territory; Gladiator Challenge championing a Western territory and so on. We may find ourselves with territories and divisions akin to College Football’s conferences, or Major League Baseball’s divisions. The good news is, we’d actually benefit from such a paradigm shift. These promotions have already done the leg work to establish their brands, they’re already on TV, and already have streaming experience. Those established regional promotions will be the ones with enough resources and vision to go after those dollars being left on the table by the UFC closing. With those dollars, they’ll be able to pay fighters and the fight scene will continue, if not evolve.
No. 1: Nationwide “Leagues,” “Associations,” and “Federations” will be the promotional sanctioning bodies, like in boxing – To elaborate on my prior point: regional promotions step up and are able to carve their niche, but there is only so much elbow room in the fight economy. If the UFC monolith were to disappear, all of these “at ready” promotions would be charging in and there would be no room for any one of those promotions to reign as number one (unless they found themselves with the resources to cannibalize their competition, but that’s a discussion for another day); in the place of one, we may have ten. So, of those ten equally paced fight promotions, how do we declare the undisputed champion of the world? A sanctioning body would have to be established; an championship entity that wasn’t tied to one promotion or another, a championship that would be contested in any promotion that participated or abided by the standards set by said sanctioning body. Boxing has the World Boxing Council (WBC), World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Organization (WBO) and so on. The World Association of Mixed Martial Arts (WAMMA) tried to be that sanctioning body, even crowned Fedor Emelianenko as their world champion for the Affliction promotion. The problem with WAMMA is that it wasn’t needed. With the UFC being the largest promoter in the world, it’s championship was considered the undisputed best in the world. If the UFC folds, we’ll need such associations. It’s my sincere hope that if it comes to that, we settle on one and not get convoluted like boxing can be. The real danger is that we could have the “World Combat Sport Alliance” (fictitious), and promotions don’t like what they are doing, so they form the “World Mixed Fight Organization” (also fictitious). Promotions don’t like their rules, so another association is formed and so on and so on.
Of course, the UFC isn’t dead and hasn’t been sold. Articles and speech (like this one) are fueled purely by speculation. Even if the UFC is sold, there is still a fifty-fifty shot that the new UFC will be as successful as the prior, just like this incarnation of the UFC was.
Thank you for joining me for this week’s Friday 5ive; make sure you keep an eye out for this week’s Prizefight Podcast!
Until next time: fights, Cameron, action!