The Competition Debate in MMA
January 22, 2010
Danny Acosta of FIGHT! Magazine has an interesting short clip interview where he discusses the idea of competition in MMA with Strikeforce’s Scott Coker.
MMAPayout.com has long talked about why competition is so important in MMA and Coker does a pretty good job of summarizing the position: competition helps to grow demand for the entire industry. How? It affords the consumer the luxury of choice in which they can experience the product in a different light, compare and contrast, and ultimately feel better, or more invested, in their purchase decision. All of those things lead to greater satisfaction, which in turn spurs further repeat business and referrals to the sport.
However, there are some limitations to the argument, and I’ll push back on what Scott has said merely to play devil’s advocate a little bit:
1.) The major limitation to the idea of competition spurring demand in the sports world is that product quality is highly dependent on a very limited source of human capital that cannot be duplicated or engineered the way you might develop a new piece of proprietary technology through R&D. Hence, there’s never been a truly successful model in North American professional sports (or the world, really) where two high level leagues were able to compete simultaneously in the same sport over the long term. There’s always been a merger to combine talent and resources: e.g., NFL and AFL, NBA and ABA, the NHL and WHA, etc.
While I certainly buy that competition spurs demand, I do so with a long-term perspective constrained by the notion that this will only be the case while the sport is moving through the growth phase of its product life cycle. MMA is still a very new sport to many people and it’s less about seeing the best fighters as it is experiencing the novelty of the sport itself. That will only be the case for so long, and we’re already starting to see the effects of a more well-educated MMA consumer (less booing on the ground, larger interest in martial arts programs around the US, fans being selective in PPV purchasing, etc.).
2.) The WWE and Pride are probably not the best examples to cite where competition played a huge role in industry demand. WWE and Pride both thrived on theatrics and the “promotion” aspect of the business that enabled them to go head-to-head with their competition. The quality of the product essentially became more about drama than it did the action.
The most popular MMA fights in Japan have all largely been freak show fights or gimmick bouts in which a former pro wrestler fights MMA. Pride worked to mimic a professional wrestling atmosphere in the sense that it built baby faces and heels to polarize the crowd. If you look at the popularity of professional wrestling in Japan today, I’m not sure it should be a surprise to anyone that Japanese MMA has fallen off as much as it has.
If MMA is going to work in North America it cannot be based upon gimmick fights or as a stop-over for every over-the-hill athlete in professional sports. It has to seek legitimacy as a bona fide sport . MMA can and should be story line-driven – all sports are – but it must be so in a manner that more closely resembles the way the professional sports leagues build-up a game between two rival teams.
Why? That’s where the mainstream money lies; there’s a reason wrestling’s growth has stagnated and its demographic skewed younger.
3.) The absence of competition certainly isn’t the only reason the ratings have fallen off in both cases. The WWE lost a great deal of its 90s writing group that produced such successful plot lines. The company also experienced quite a dramatic talent gap: John Cena, Randy Orton, and Batista…the new Rock or Stone Cold they are not. Likewise, Pride dug itself a hole with the Japanese mob and debt that ultimately impacted the day-to-day operating environment of the company.