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January-31-2008,
UFC: Room for Improvement in '08...By Jay Graziani

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is widely spoken of as the "fastest growing sport" in America. It emerged explosively a few years ago after laying dormant for the better part of a decade, having gone through numerous tweaks and adjustments since its inception. The transition from being a flash-in-the pan event to a full-fledged internationally-followed sport is complex, and keeping the attention of a fickle consumer public is difficult. The UFC, as the primary public face of the sport, has been central to the many innovations that caused MMA to emerge from the shadows. Now in the public eye, the UFC must consider making a number of improvements if it is going to begin to compete with the "big" sports interests worldwide.

Eliminate in-fight advertising

While Fry's Electronics certainly gets plenty of benefit from having their name inscribed across Chuck Liddell's ass, blatant shilling such as this cheapens the sport. Certainly fighters have to maintain an adequate income, as well as pay for their training facilities, coaches, and equipment, but the UFC is making enough money these days that they can afford to share their newfound wealth with the fighters who get bruised and bloodied for them every month. UFC should ban fighters from acting as walking billboards for Condom Depot, but must also increase the fighters' share of the revenue to make up for that loss of income.

And while MMA is a young and controversial sport which has trouble attracting big-name sponsors, is Mickey's Malt Liquor really the best they can do? The UFC has built its brand on the young adult male population for whom Mickey's might well be an appropriate sponsor, but increasing your market share means expanding into new demographics, and choice of advertisers certainly can affect public perception of your product. Sub-prime sponsors make the organization look cheap, shoddy, and desperate. At this point the UFC has evolved beyond the early days where they had to accept any and all money that was offered to them. Now that they are profitable and looking to build a long-lasting and respectable worldwide organization, they have to take into account their sponsorships and endorsements as well, and hold them to a higher standard.

Increase network television exposure while improving pay-per-view (PPV) quality

The rise of the UFC in the public eye can largely be attributed to SpikeTV's airtime, including "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show (with a seventh season to air soon) and "UFC Fight Nights". While the Spike-UFC collaboration has been wildly successful, it is time for UFC to increase their television exposure. The PPV-only model has not served boxing particularly well, and it likely will not work for UFC either. While PPV-centric exhibitions are profitable, they also limit the exposure and expansion of the sport. As the sport continues to grow, attracting new fans will be possible only by giving them a taste of the product for free - through regular television broadcasts. Even a small deal with a pay channel like HBO or Showtime, broadcasting a full UFC event in lieu of PPV, would certainly help the average sports fan appreciate MMA a bit more. And having some big-name fighters regularly square off on "free TV", Spike or otherwise, would definitely spur increased interest.

Meanwhile, the quality of the pay-per-view events has steadily deteriorated, while at the same time increasing in frequency to sometimes three times in a five week span (like the current run leading up to this weekend's UFC 81). Undercards have been subpar, generally filled with reality show contestants and "up-and-comers" in lopsided matchups. UFC should strengthen their product by limiting themselves to one pay-per-view event per month to avoid fan burnout. With five weight classes, it should be relatively simple to schedule one championship bout each month, with plenty of big-name fighters left for the undercards. With the recent influx of talent into MMA, UFC has plenty of fighters to put together an extremely solid five-fight card every month. Why they fail to do so is the real question, and one that paying consumers will be forced to address if the substandard event quality continues.

A "last man standing" tournament

The Ultimate Fighting Championship was conceived almost fifteen years ago as a tournament pitting the world's greatest fighters against one another. Over the years, the UFC has lost that mindset, opting instead to go with individual bouts and champions classified by weight division. PRIDE kept the tournament format alive with their annual Grand Prix event, and there was hope that UFC would continue that format upon the acquisition of PRIDE. While there has been little news on that front, the time to resurrect a tournament is now. The sport has been cleaned up enough that the brutal injuries of the early days have been lessened considerably, particularly with rule changes banning headbutts as well as kicks and knees to downed opponents. The new rules emphasize jiu-jitsu over "ground-and pound", and jiu-jitsu is largely size-independent, as proven by Royce Gracie winning the first three UFC tournaments despite weighing only 170 pounds. Ultimately a tournament-style event determining the best fighter regardless of weight class would be a unique draw in the sports world and something that is much more likely to be accepted today than in 1993 during UFC 1.

PRIDE had successful open-weight tournaments in 2000 and 2006, as well as tournaments in individual weight classes from 2003-2006. A once-yearly tournament, with a champion separate from the usual weight division champions, could become a real draw for the UFC. To be successful among American fans, a sport needs its own high profile event, its own Superbowl or March Madness. An open-weight tournament would provide just that for the UFC. A first round event could have 16 (or even 32) of the world's top fighters square off, with the surviving 8 advancing to a final tournament a month or so later. Such an event could easily become the premier mixed martial arts event in the world, catapulting UFC to the next level of popularity.

2007 was a big year for mixed martial arts. Whether its popularity will continue to increase is anyone's guess. The strategic decisions UFC makes in 2008 will go a long way towards either firmly establishing mixed martial arts as a socially-acceptable sport or hastening its rapid decline as a pop-culture phenomenon.

1-31-08
Jay Graziani
MajorWager.com
graziani@majorwager.com

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