UFC/WEC: Absorption Problems?
September 3, 2009
Whenever the possibility of a UFC/WEC merger is broached, one of the major arguments militating against a union has been the purported inability of UFC to absorb another two weight classes’ worth of talent (along with, presumably, some lightweight fighters). The point is that UFC already has difficulty giving all its contracted talent the typical three or four fights a year, an argument which has had until now a certain cogency to it. In MMA, however, the times are constantly a-changin’, and with Dana White’s stating that UFC plans as many as three shows a month in 2010, the question might not be whether a UFC/WEC merger is viable, but rather whether it’s a business necessity.
First, although the absorption problem is a legitimate issue under the current schedule, it’s an issue whose primary negative effect is on the lower-level fighters, and not the promotion. In other words, from a fan perspective, it’s difficult to argue that we don’t get to see fighters fight with enough frequency. Indeed, the pattern seems to be that UFC delivers a couple of months worth of star-laden events, which are then followed by more lackluster cards, as the top talent takes a rest. I’ve made the argument that that’s exactly what’s happening in September and October, and I’ll state again that the UFC 104 undercard — aside from its main event — would be worthy of prelim status on a good ppv night. This is a problem that will only be exacerbated by any increase in number of UFC events in 2010.
Moreover, it appears that UFC 102’s numbers will provide further evidence that pay-per-views without title fights (or lacking at least a major grudge match between fighters fans view as superstars) are seen as skippable events. After pulling in approximately 2,500,000 total buys for UFC 100 and 101, Dave Meltzer’s latest Wrestling Observer Newsletter reports that 102’s first projections place it at a disappointing 435,000 buys. As Meltzer notes, this bodes ill for UFC 103, which is headlined by a non-title Vitor Belfort/Rich Franklin fight, and which also goes head-to-head with the Mayweather/Marquez ppv.
Beyond 103, though, which after all is just one night, one lesson is self-evident: as many pay-per-views as possible, ideally all of them, should be headlined by a title fight. The corollary is just as obvious: absorb the WEC’s 145- and 135-lbs. divisions into the UFC, providing two more titles to be defended on pay-per-views. With those divisions under the UFC umbrella, unless UFC goes overboard in stacking cards with multiple title fights, it should have little difficulty in providing at least one title fight per ppv.
UFC has 211 fighters under contract, or at least that’s how many fighters are listed on its website. By my calculations, assuming there are 36 shows in a calendar year, UFC ideally (i.e., each fighter fights three or four times a year) would have somewhere between 200 and 265 contracted fighters. If we assume that the lower level guys fight three times a year, whereas the higher level talent leans towards four fights per year, it seems that UFC could easily absorb 40-50 WEC fighters. When you take into account various business factors, again, absorption becomes almost a necessity.
Almost a necessity. WEC’s biggest obstacle might be its poor brand recognition; as Kelsey has noted, it’s the reason “we’ve yet to see a WEC PPV.” Although it seems that most expect Versus to end up back on DirecTV after a reconciliation, there are currently 6,000,000 fewer people with access to Versus than there were last week, which is simply not beneficial to WEC brand marketing.
One solution — and perhaps an even better one than a straight merger — would be to re-brand WEC as UFC, which would immediately increase recognition of its fighters. This provides Zuffa with the ability to maintain separate brands, and yet it could quite easily place the bigger 135- and 145-lbs. fights on UFC pay-per-views. The biggest obstacle to re-branding WEC as UFC is Zuffa’s contract with Spike television, which gives Spike exclusive access to UFC on basic cable. It seems to me, though, with so much money on the line, that there has to be a solution permitting WEC to re-brand as UFC that would be acceptable to both Zuffa and Spike.
Whether UFC attempts a straight merger or something along the lines of a re-branding, as Mixed Martial Arts prepares to enter its third decade with an ever increasing number of shows each month, the UFC/WEC status quo cannot be maintained. Something’s gonna give in 2010.