Strikeforce-Dream Partnership Taking Shape

August 5, 2009

MMAWeekly has published an informative piece that focuses upon the developing relationship between Strikeforce and Dream; it also features an interview with Strikeforce President, Scott Coker. While the entire article can be found here, a summary of some of the more interesting points lies below:

  • Scott Coker has a history with Dream promoter Kazuyoshi Ishii that dates back to his K-1 US kickboxing days 8 years ago.
  • The deal has been in the works for some time now, but Strikeforce was expanding right at the time that Dream was looking to establish itself in Japan – neither promotion could afford to trade fighters.
  • Any potential partnership will be an exclusive one; meaning Strikeforce, Dream, and M-1 fighters will be shared amongst the three organizations.
  • The Fedor agreement was totally independent of the Strikeforce-Dream partnership; rumours intimating that Dream helped foster the agreement from a financial angle are false.

Payout Perspective:

The intricate details of the agreement may have yet to be announced, but it’s pretty clear already that Scott Coker is not Tom Atencio, nor is he Gary Shaw, and that Strikeforce is not looking to follow in the footsteps of Affliction or EliteXC.

If Strikeforce is able to secure a working arrangement with Dream, Strikeforce will have instantly upgraded and expanded its roster capabilities significantly. An expanded, more talented roster will increase the number of quality bouts the organization is able to promote, which means it will have to rely less on its big horses: Gina Carano and Fedor Emelianenko (someone they’re banking on becoming a star on equal measure with his talent).

You can add Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza to the list of new Strikeforce signees and that’s another interesting match-up for Lawler.

I do wonder, however, how this whole exclusivity thing is going to play out in regards to someone like Eddie Alvarez who is signed to non-exclusive agreements with Bellator, Dream, and Adrenaline. Bellator’s Bjorn Rebney has been cautious about the idea of Alvarez competing on another show, so we’ll see.

At any rate this agreement should be seen as quite encouraging by MMA fans. The best of the best that are outside of the UFC will likely soon be competing against one another; and under the Strikeforce banner, with Scott Coker at the helm, you can seemingly be assured that an actual plan is in place to grow this organization safely and profitably.

Fedor-Strikeforce Analysis

August 4, 2009

By Kelsey Philpott

Fedor signing with Strikeforce is a complex issue not because of the deal itself, but because of the underlying implications it may or may not have for the MMA community as a whole. Thus, we’ll take a look at the signing from the viewpoint of the many different stakeholders in this situation.

The Strikeforce Perspective:

Strikeforce has not only managed to add one of the world’s top fighters, but they’ve also denied their competition that same opportunity. The UFC is without the ability to promote the biggest heavyweight match of all-time, and while it won’t hurt their competitor, it’s not going to help.

Emelianenko isn’t just any top fighter, either – he’s a top heavyweight fighter. Scott Coker is banking on the allure of the heavyweight division to help further his promotion along as a PPV entity and tap into some of that UFC money.

However, one has to wonder whether the potential benefits in signing Fedor will outweigh the costs. In other words, will gains in revenue and reputation be enough to off-set and exceed the costs of the marketing push necessary to make Emelianenko a PPV draw? He’s a talented fighter, but the casual MMA fan needs to be aware of him in order to follow him. 

In addition to the substantial marketing push, it’s worth pointing out that Strikeforce will also have to pay Emelianenko and put up with the operational inefficiencies that are sure to crop up as the result of this “co-promotion” agreement with M-1 Global. The co-promotion thing didn’t work out too well for Affliction; neither did having the “strongest” heavyweight division on the planet for that matter.

The signing also begs the question: who is Fedor going to fight? It’s not enough that Fedor is a superb talent, he also has to fight superb talent. Fans want to know they’re watching the best fight the best, not the best fight the mediocre. Aside from Overeem, Werdum, and Rogers, who is there? 

The Fedor Perspective:

In signing with Strikeforce, Fedor will fight in the U.S. and have the opportunity to build his brand on network television. If all goes well, Strikeforce plans on producing PPV events that could potentially be quite lucrative for Emelianenko. 

Yet, Fedor is also assuming some risk with this agreement. He’s banking on the ability of Strikeforce to a.) market him properly and increase his drawing power, b.) provide him with suitable opponents to test his skills, and c.) competently manage their organization so as to not go out of business.

The real question here seems to be, what does Fedor want? Nobody really knows, but if it were money, or even exposure for that matter, he probably would have been better off signing with the UFC. This leads me to believe the Strikeforce deal was made for reasons independent of money or exposure.

Fedor may have very well signed with Strikeforce to spite the UFC; the same organization that has openly taunted and criticized the Russian for the better part of two years now. And, really, why work for someone you despise?

The Showtime/CBS Perspective:

The Fedor signing gives both networks yet another tool to help market and enhance the credibility of their events. If either one can manage to sell the human interest story of the stoic Russian who trains in a Siberian school yard – only to annihilate former UFC heavyweight champions – they might be able to seriously cash in on the return.

The downside is that they’re likely going to be dumping a ton of marketing dollars into Fedor (in addition to picking up part of his payday for each fight). If Strikeforce can’t come through with solid opponents, or Fedor simply doesn’t catch on, it might push both networks out of the MMA business for good (or the foreseeable future). Both Showtime and CBS were burned by the EliteXC experience; it’s probably not a stretch to suggest they’re extremely cautious right now.

The M-1 Perspective:

Vadim Finkelstein gets to plaster his M-1 brand all over network and premium cable television, and by virtue of that, help to grow the name of the company in the hopes of making it a global empire. The details of the agreement haven’t been released in full, so it’s difficult to say whether things will truly be split down the middle, or whether Strikeforce will be left with the operations and M-1 will merely get to push its name and logo on telecasts (and as the sponsors of every fight).

Interestingly enough, M-1 also retains more control over Fedor in this deal. The UFC has a history of separating fighters from their management – in fact they said repeatedly that they only wanted to deal with Fedor. By signing with Strikeforce, M-1 keeps Fedor away from the UFC, gets him involved with the Strikeforce co-promotion, and gives him a degree of ownership in a project which is likely to make him feel more connected to M-1.

However, it’s tough to say whether the M-1 will gain any sort of significant traction as a single entity while being attached to a co-promotion. They’ll need to find a way to leverage their M-1 Breakthrough series and their M-1 Challenger series through the Strikeforce agreement and make people aware of who they are and what they’re doing. If they fail, they’ll probably just be relegated to “official sponsor” status in the minds of most viewers (an official sponsor that doesn’t sell any clothing or produce anything tangible, simply because they don’t know about it).

The UFC Perspective:

Dana White and the UFC are going to be angry, obviously. In missing out on Fedor they feel they’re missing out on giving the fans what they want: the ultimate heavyweight showdown between Brock and Fedor. It’s also a lost opportunity to crank up the UFC hype machine and give the UFC yet another MMA star to help build its global brand. Fedor would have been another piece to the Asian puzzle and could have helped cement the resurrection of the heavyweight division.

With that said, the UFC isn’t necessarily going to be hurt by this deal. As we’ve pointed out, they’re on pace for a record year with or without Emelianenko. Brock Lesnar is truthfully a far better draw – even if the debate will continue to rage on as to whether he’s the better fighter – and that is what’s important to the UFC from a business perspective. The UFC has plenty of good heavyweights that they can pit against Brock in order to do great PPV buy numbers; they don’t need Fedor in this sense.

However, I do think it’s worth mentioning that the UFC’s history of trash talking has finally caught up with it. When is the organization going to learn that trash talking other non-UFC fighters isn’t going to get them anywhere? Dana made it clear last week, contrary to his previous statements over the last few years, that he thought Fedor was a top-flight heavyweight. The fact that he was willing to give Fedor a title shot right out of the gate is a case of actions speaking louder than words.

So why burn a bridge with someone that you’d like to have in your company; someone that could potentially help you in the future? And for what? Fedor has failed to become an entity in North America not because of Dana White’s trash talk, but because of the incompetence of those he’s surrouned himself with.

The Sport Perspective:

In the short term, Fedor will be fighting once again – and that’s a great thing.

In the long term, there are still many unanswered questions:

– Will the Strikeforce/M-1 partnership work out? What happens to Strikeforce if it fails?
– Can some combination of Strikeforce, Showtime, and CBS manage to market Fedor properly?
– Will Strikeforce be able to successfully adjust its business model towards PPVs and Network TV?
– Can Strikeforce provide Fedor with the opposition he deserves?
– And…what the hell happens if Fedor loses?

 Those are serious.

MMA Stardom: Fighting Most Important

August 3, 2009

Anderson Silva’s up-coming light heavyweight tilt against Forrest Griffin provides the perfect background for today’s discussion: MMA stars. 

What is the definition of an MMA star?

Generally, there exist two types of stars in any sport: athletic stars and cross-over stars. Athletic stars gain acclaim and following through their in-competition achievements. While cross-over stars are known for some combination of their appearance, charisma, or human interest in addition, obviously, to athletic ability. It’s that combination that allows these athletes to “cross-over” and derive interest from a non-sporting perspective.

Unfortunately, the most common misconception regarding MMA stars is that they must be charismatic, attractive, and intriguing individuals in order to be deemed a star. In other words, fighters like Anderson Silva or Lyoto Machida should be incredible orators, public ambassadors, and/or willing extra-curricular participants in order to draw PPV sales. This is patently false.

The simple truth of the matter is that fans attend events to be entertained by the fighting. All the talk, the glitz, and the glamour mean nothing at the end of the day if the fighting is garbage. Thus, as a fighter, the most important trait one can have is an exciting, entertaining fighting style.

Chuck Liddell is arguably the most popular MMA fighter ever, but he didn’t reach those heights on the back of his good looks, incredible charm, or engaging personality. Let’s be honest, we’re talking about a man that once appeared intoxicated and nearly fell asleep during a morning talk show interview… No, Liddell was popular because fans always knew what to expect from him: someone that was going to engage his opponent and likely knock him out.
And, while far from conclusive, the PPV numbers and TV ratings would seem to further support this hypothesis. Liddell’s numbers grew as he became more dominant and his sheer presence has carried many a PPV. The UFC promoted Silva as the “Pound-for-Pound King” for Spike’s UFC: Silva vs. Irvin and he went on to destroy his opponent in front of over 4 million viewers (3.1 rating); had he been able to dominate Cote his PPV draw ability would have soared (despite the fact that UFC 90 did only 300,000 buys). Furthermore, a similar trend is evident with Lyoto Machida; as his victories have become more dominant, his following has expanded (including a Hughes-Serra assisted 635,000 buys at UFC 98 when he took the title).

Does this mean that MMA should forget about building a cross-over star? Absolutely not.

Brock Lesnar is perhaps already on his way to becoming that cross-over star that everyone covets – even if he isn’t what people envision as the typical cross-over. He’s a polarizing force that draws interest not just because of his ability, but his freakish size, nasty demeanour, and unpredictable public mannerisms. Some will tune in to see the spectacle that is the gargantuan man beating another over the head with repeated hammer fists. Others will tune in to see “that lippy WWE son of a gun get what he deserves.” Others still will watch because of their appreciation for his wrestling ability and to see how much he’s improved since his last fight.

However, to expect that MMA is capable of building a host of cross-over talent is probably unwise – not to mention unnecessary. A cross-over star is a rare, if not generational, breed of athlete. It’s not everyday that a De La Hoya comes knocking at the door of any sport. Brock may not ever reach that level of popularity – and as I’ve pointed out, certainly not in the same fashion – but that doesn’t matter.

The sport doesn’t need to have multiple jack-of-all-trades; it just needs good, exciting fighters.

If Anderson Silva can bury Forrest Griffin this weekend under a “ballet of violence,” most, if not all, will be forgiven and he’ll likely continue his ascension towards being one of MMA’s must-see PPV draws.

CNBC's "Fistful of Dollars" Recap

July 30, 2009

CNBC’s “Ultimate Fighting: Fistful of Dollars” premiered last night, taking viewers back inside the Octagon for a second look at the sport of mixed martial arts and the UFC, in particular.

The show was clearly designed for general audiences; thus, it didn’t divulge much in the way of facts or statistics that we have yet to hear or read about. I did, however, make a few quick notes on some of the more interesting business points from the segment:

– In 2008, the UFC generated nearly $275 million in revenue which represented an increase of 37% over two years.

– The UFC (or MMA in general) brought nearly $86 million in non-gaming revenue to the city of Las Vegas  in 2008.

– Tapout, the industry leading clothing label, has seen its revenues grow at nearly 300% since the beginning of 2007; the company generated $120 million in revenue in 2008.

Overall, the show was quite well balanced. It covered the wide spectrum of MMA – the NHB days, John McCain’s cockfighting, the Zuffa purchase of the UFC, new sanctioning/rules, etc. – but, it also took a look at the sport from multiple perspectives, including that of the fighters, apparel makers, sponsors, government, and UFC competition.

Upon reading about the planned feature – and its title – I envisioned some sort of cynical tone whereby they’d paint MMA promoters as a bunch of greedy, morally uninhibited scoundrals that had taken advantage of a new blood thirsty generation to attain significant profits. Definitely not the case here and well worth your time to check out the hour-long segment.

EA MMA: Typo or Slip of the Tongue on Fedor?

July 29, 2009

As Robert Joyner posted earlier, EA MMA announced today that Fedor Emelianenko will headline EA MMA’s fight roster for their coming video game (set for release Summer 2010).

But, check the curious inclusion made in today’s official press release:

REDWOOD CITY, Calif., – July 29, 2009 – Electronic Arts Inc., (NASDAQ: ERTS) announced today that Fedor Emelianenko, the world’s top ranked* MMA heavyweight, will headline the EA SPORTS™ MMA fighter roster.  Emelianenko will be joined by Gegard Mousasi and Renato Sobral, both of whom will be featured in a title bout at the STRIKEFORCE fight on August 15, as the first of a long list of fighters who will appear in EA SPORTS MMA, the all-new mixed martial arts title coming in 2010. 


“I have fought all over the world and I am excited to be in EA SPORTS MMA because this game is going to show the global appeal of mixed martial arts,” said Emelianenko.  “I know MMA fans have been wanting to play as me and pitting me against any opponent. Now they will have their opportunity.”  


Fedor Emelianenko, a 6’0”, 231 pound Russian heavyweight mixed martial arts fighter, who excels in Sambo and Judo, holds a 30-1 record and is the current WAMMA Heavyweight champion.  Prior to signing on with STRIKEFORCE, Emelianenko defended his WAMMA championship by knocking out former UFC Heavyweight Champion Andrei Arlovski.   


Gegard Mousasi, a former Dream Middleweight champion, has a current record of 25-2-1 and won his last match in Dream 9 against Mark Hunt this past May.  The 6’1”, 185 pound Dutch-Armenian fighter will be taking on Renato Sobral to determine STRIKEFORCE’s Light Heavyweight champion and has a fight style that is a unique blend of Dutch kickboxing and judo.


Sobral, hailing from Brazil, is known for his aggressive style, grappling prowess, and high-caliber submissions.  He is the current STRIKEFORCE Light Heavyweight champion and has a record of 35-8 with his last victory coming against Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou at Affliction: Day of Reckoning fight earlier this year. 


I am very excited to have Fedor, the number one heavyweight in the world, as one of the top fighters in EA SPORTS MMA,” said Executive Producer Dale Jackson.  “He is one of the elite fighters in the sport today and will provide the ultimate competition for our gamers.  The EA SPORTS MMA team at Tiburon has been working on the game for over a year already and we will have a lot more great fighters and other exciting news to talk about soon.”


In addition to appearing in the EA SPORTS MMA video game, Mousasi and Sobral will be sponsored by EA SPORTS for the STRIKEFORCE fight. 


EA SPORTS MMA will feature the most authentic, intense and broad mixed martial arts experience to date – complete with a vast array of top fighters and fighting styles from around the world.  EA SPORTS MMA will be available on the Xbox 360® video game and entertainment system and the PLAYSTATION®3 computer entertainment system.


Payout Opinion:

It’s quite likely that whoever wrote the press release is not familiar with MMA and made a simple mistake in writing that Emelianenko has signed on with Strikeforce – just about everyone else licensed for the game is fighting for Strikeforce.

On a business note, EA MMA will be sponsorsing the up-coming Strikeforce title fight on August 15th between Renato “Babalu” Sobral and Gegard Mousassi.

The UFC may not enjoy having a competing product for its video game, but there are tremendous benefits to competition: it helps to eliminate developmental complacency, thus spurring innovation; intellectual piggy-backing tends to occur which, like a rising tide, helps to float all boats; and, in this case, competition has also brought another blue chip sponsor to the MMA fold – Electronic Arts.

What Affliction MMA Should Have Been

July 29, 2009

By Kelsey Philpott

The fact that Josh Barnett’s positive test for anabolic steroids was able to bring down an entire card really speaks volumes about the level of structure, organization, and most importantly, depth, within Affliction.

A crisis such as this would not have hampered the UFC’s ability to put on an event; nor would it have likely impacted Strikeforce. Some might say it’s unfair to compare Affliction to the UFC or Strikeforce, but I’d argue that’s precisely the point of absurdity in this entire situation.

The real truth of the matter is that Affliction could not hope to compete with the UFC right out of the gate, and to expect otherwise was to set itself up for a rather large and costly defeat.

And, sure, the idea of what Affliction was trying to do is absolutely marvellous. What MMA fan in their right mind wouldn’t want another organization that is paying huge sums to its fighters, puts on some of the best fights in the world, and supports itself through millions in PPV revenue?

But as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Affliction should have done things properly right from the outset: going small, going responsible, and going from the ground up, all in order to build a solid foundation.

What would have been wrong with Affliction as a regional promoter – doing four shows a year – in any one of the many underserved MMA markets across the US? It could have easily leveraged its brand into a strong following, sufficient media coverage, and likely a TV deal (HDNet would have been a great full-time partner).

More importantly, as a regional promotion, Affliction would have had the opportunity to gain many of things it proved to lack: operational experience, fiscal accountability, organizational structure, roster depth, and a chance at consistency. In other words, the regional promotion business model would have equipped Affliction with all the tools it would have needed to deal with a crisis such as the one that occurred this week.

Call it what you want – the Strikeforce model, responsible management, whatever – this is the kind of approach and business model that would have produced success. It may not have made money right out of the gate, but it would have been a whole lot easier for the clothing line to subsidize a regional show than the international money glutton that Affliction actually produced. You can also bet that they would have been making money by the 3rd or 4th show; again unlike the model they decided to run with.

Further, the greatest strength of Affliction- aside from the brand itself – was Atencio’s passion and commitment to the sport. Under a better, more well-thought-out business model, you have to figure that it would have only been a matter of years before the correctly modelled promotion began to compete for big name contracts (just as Strikeforce has done).

That’s what Affliction should have been.

Point, Counterpoint: Affliction Killed Affliction

July 28, 2009

By Kelsey Philpott

Welcome to the latest addition of MMA Payout: Point, Counterpoint!

After reading Payout contributor Jonathon Snowden’s latest piece entitled “Who Really Killed Affliction?” I feel compelled to respond and engage in some healthy debate here on the website.

In his article Jon argues for the following:

As the smoke cleared from Affliction Entertainment’s implosion, the media vultures were quick to assign blame for the promotion’s demise. Some pointed a finger at Tom Atencio, the organization’s front man and the architect of fight cards filled with untenable contracts, cards too good and too expensive for an upstart promotion. Others blamed Josh Barnett, the self destructive enigma who once again allegedly resorted to using illegal performance enhancers to prepare for the biggest fight of his career. But the real culprit is a true American hero, or a titular one at least. Yes, Randy Couture killed Affliction and he did it all the way back in September 2008.

Fedor vs. Randy

Although Fedor vs. Randy may have been an epic fight, it would have been a far less epic PPV for Affliction.

Randy Couture is an enigma in the sense that he’s quite well regarded – a legend in fact – by most within the sport, but he hasn’t been able to match the success of men like Chuck Liddell or Tito Ortiz in the PPV department. He’s managed to headline some record shows (e.g., UFC 57 or UFC 91), but he’s never done it on his own.

If you were to assess Randy’s drawing power at the time of the proposed Fedor fight, you’d have to look at fights like UFC 68 or UFC 74. He was the main attraction in both cards (aside from having GSP on the undercard at 74) and drew in the solid, yet unspectacular range of 520-540k.

Fedor’s numbers, on the other hand, were downright dismal: 30k and 50k for the Bodog and Pride events respectively.  

While I understand the hype surrounding the fight, the simple reality of things was that Couture could not have carried a “super fight” on a somewhat unknown promotion, against a virtually unknown fighter.

The fact that some were expecting Fedor vs. Randy to break PPV records under the Affliction banner speaks to just how much the MMA community underestimated the value of the UFC brand and marketing push in comparison to the individual drawing power of great fighters like Randy Couture.

The subsequent performance of Affliction I and II – both of which featured former UFC heavyweight champions, Sylvia and Arlovski – is further support to this line of thinking.

Bad Gamble, Bad Business

I concede the points that Randy Couture was likely the basis for which Affliction’s promotion was formed and that Affliction seemingly bet the farm on Fedor vs. Randy.

However, I object to the notion that Randy Couture killed Affliction. 

Affliction made a bad gamble when they decided to bet the farm on a single, impotent main event, which is an absolute indictment of their bad business practices – it was ultimately a sign of things to come, with or without Fedor vs. Randy.

Affliction Killed Affliction

To claim that Randy Couture killed Affliction is to divert attention from the other significant factors that contributed to the demise of the promotion.

The following reasons for Affliction’s demise are issues that the MMA community – and prospective promoters in particular – need to be mindful of in the future:

1. Affliction had no apparent business strategy. The organization was content to focus on one event at a time, without any forward thinking as to what might lie ahead and how they might try to bring everything together in a cohesive, progressive manner.

2. Affliction used a flawed and inappropriate business model. In the organization’s quest to compete with the UFC, they chose to follow the PPV business model without the prerequisite fan following to ensure sufficient cash flow generation. Additionally, they paid out some of the most handsome fighter salaries in the history of the sport, while also forking out huge money to produce each show. They had Ozzy scheduled to play at intermission for goodness sake.

3. Affliction tried to build their organization around one fighter. It’s hard enough to build a card around one fighter, let alone an entire organization; and, whether it ended up being Randy or Fedor, the organization’s appeal was destined to be quite shallow. This, of course, omits the fact that Fedor, who became Affliction’s prime ticket, was a virtual unknown in the United States. It never added up.

Other Contributing Factors

4. The presence of the UFC. The sport’s most popular fighting organization drew the ire of many hardcore fans for its hard-line stance and opposition to Affliction. By refusing to co-promote, refusing to acknowledge the existence of Affliction, and waging competitive broadcasts during Affliction events, the UFC helped to cut off the casual MMA fan from knowing about, hearing about, or watching Affliction events.

5. The state of the sport itself. MMA simply isn’t yet popular enough to sustain a full-on competitor to the UFC. There isn’t enough disposable cash in the current economy, there aren’t enough marketable entities outside of the UFC’s control to make it happen, and, dare I say, there just isn’t enough interest in the sport as of right now.

Counterpoint Conclusion

Randy may have contributed to the beginning of the end for Affliction, but it was a combination of the organization’s strategy, business model, and singular attraction that led to the organization’s demise.

Check back tomorrow for a look at what Affliction Entertainment should have been.

Affliction III: Barnett Out, Belfort Possibly Stepping Up

July 22, 2009

It was revealed Tuesday that Josh Barnett has tested positive for a “performance enhancing substance” and will be unable to compete at Affliction: Trilogy on August 1st in Anaheim, California.

The story is still developing – the CSAC expects to release a more comprehensive statement later today and Affliction plans on announcing Fedor’s replacement shortly – but it appears as though middleweight Vitor Belfort is primed to step up and face Emelianenko.

Payout Opinion:

While I feel for Tom Atencio and Affliction, I’m not willing to buy the bad luck argument either. Rather, I’m left to question the foundation of any organization that could be brought down by the cancelation of one fight.

This situation really brings me back to the demise of EliteXC in a way: Affliction, too, is a promotion that has built itself around a single fighter, whilst spending excessively and failing to establish sustainable revenues.

It makes me wonder – and so, I suppose, I ask the question – did these guys have a plan? If so, what was it?

I understand the goal has always been to create a “fighter friendly” organization, but that’s more akin to an organizational mission or vision statement than it is any sort of strategy. It’s a guiding principle that they should have kept in the back of their head: one to frame policies, but not to interfere with the bottom line.

Even if Affliction was gambling that its personnel approach would generate the star power needed to generate massive PPVs – something more in line with an actual strategy – they could have gone about organizing their business more efficiently.

There’s no rule that says you have to lose millions of dollars before you can become profitable – quite to the contrary. 

The $40 million that Zuffa lost between 2001 and 2005 represents the time, effort, execution, and the money involved to create a foundation that would allow an MMA organization to flourish. The serendipitous birth of The Ultimate Fighter helped, no doubt, but it was the foundation Zuffa created that allowed it to capitalize on that success.

Times are different now, the sport is well more established, and at some point Affliction is going to have to create a foundation of its own – one that is not dependent upon a clothing line for subsidization.

Unfortunately, things just got complicated.

UFC 100: A Voice of Reason

July 14, 2009

By Kelsey Philpott

It’s safe to say that the MMA community was holding its breath this weekend as the world watched the UFC’s centennial offering. The event on Saturday night was essentially MMA’s biggest opportunity yet to show the world what it’s all about.

How did it fair? That’s up for debate. Most look to the general media impressions, but not surprisingly they’re mixed as always. Some thought the show was outstanding, others were concerned about issues of safety and sportsmanship, others still were appalled by its “barbarism.”

The issue of barbarism and no rules, no holds barred fighting has been addressed. There’s no need to talk about it again other than to simply say that some people will never like this sport and never agree with this sport.

Aside from the odd individual stuck in 1993, the most common reaction I’ve encountered from UFC 100 is one of disappointment over the two most controversial incidents of the night: Henderson’s late shot on Bisping and Lesnar’s post-fight “antics,” as they’ve been described.

So, allow me to be the voice of reason and say yet again, there’s no need to panic.

The Henderson Shot

The Henderson shot, everyone will agree, was uncalled for; worse still, he admitted it was intentional following the fight (only to back track at the press conference). However, for as much as people might like to deny it, Henderson’s shot is grudgingly a part of the sport.

It’s a frenzy in there and sometimes an opportunity to finish a fight only comes about once – if you miss it, you may lose.

The real concern I have with the Henderson shot is that it again highlights the inadequacy of MMA’s officiating. Mario Yamasaki, one of MMA’s “best” officials, was in a terrible position during that stand-up exchange. He was a good three meters away and moving backward whilst the fighters were circling away from him; he was never in a position to do anything about a potential knockdown or knockout. 

To blame the fighter, in this case Henderson, for finishing the fight is to ignore the true problem in this situation. It’s Henderson’s responsibility to fight until the bell or a stoppage. Most fighters can manage to show restraint, but sometimes it’s not possible; and that’s where the official needs to step in and do his job.

While a fighter has the duty to be respectful of his opponent, it’s not the job of a fighter to protect his opponent.

Also important is how the public will perceive the shot. In this case, it’s probably more a case of par for the course from MMA: it was a huge knockout that’s already made highlight reels across the globe. Those that were turned off by the punch were likely to be turned off by just about anything the UFC had to offer that night.

Where MMA could get into trouble is in having something like Henderson’s shot become a consistent part of the sport; which, again, places a great deal of importance on the officiating.

The Lesnar Tirade

Lesnar’s lack of respect for his opponent, the fans, the sport, its sponsors, and its biggest organization was wrong – it was a slap in the face to the integrity and respect that MMA has come to stand for, something the MMA community prides itself on.

The truth of the matter, however, is that in the grand scheme of things it was a mistake that really isn’t going to cost MMA anything. Argue all you want that Lesnar damaged the reputation of the sport on Saturday, that MMA “lost” as the result of his actions, and that the UFC will suffer – none could be further from the truth.

More correctly, this type of behaviour, occuring on a consistent basis, from anyone of MMA’s stars, could be damaging for the sport. Its combat nature and checkered past subject MMA to a more severe scrutiny than most sports, thus maintaining its sportsmanship and integrity is of a long term importance.

However, it’s equally important not to lose sight of the fact that Lesnar likely now understands what is and what is not acceptable in MMA; his gaff completed the transition of Lesnar “the entertainer” to Lesnar “the fighter”. He now has the opportunity to learn from his mistake and will likely become a better ambassador of the sport because of it.

Further, in that 30 second quip Lesnar managed to become a polarizing entity the likes which MMA has never seen. People aren’t going to stop watching Lesnar, they’re going to start watching Lesnar just so they can see him get his ass kicked.

The UFC and Bud Light might be pissed, but secretly they’ve got to be happy that an increase in exposure for both their brands is likely to result out of Lesnar’s little tirade.

The real question I have been asked – and the one I’m asking myself – is, is MMA becoming too much like pro wrestling? 

I would argue no. Last time I checked, MMA is very real and nothing is contrived or scripted. It may “hype” the odd fight, but it doesn’t create a storyline to prop up fake fighting. More importantly, every sport tries to “hype” itself, not just MMA.

Sports fans are constantly inundated with “storylines” from the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL on a daily basis. Those leagues milk every non-sport related story to the maximum, because for as sad as it is to say, that’s what helps the sport sell. Why on Earth do you think they call it a human interest story? Terrell Owens and Manny Ramierez are walking storyline controversies. Kobe and Shaq is still a story ESPN leads with…five years later. Then you get into personal rivalries such as Crosby and Ovechkin or Tiger and Phil. I could go on…

The point is MMA is going to need a mix of that sport and real-life drama in order to get to the next level. Some may call it “pro wrestling flair,” I simply call it the way things work.

In terms of drama, the only true difference between MMA and other sports is that MMA is still trying to establish itself – it’s still walking that tight rope. MMA needs to be careful, and so should Brock Lesnar. He doesn’t have to change absolutely – that would dilute much of what makes him so appealing – he just has to be mindful of where that line is.

Ultimately, though, Lesnar will learn from his mistake; the MMA community will learn from his mistake; and, the outside world will slowly to come learn about MMA, as the result of Lesnar’s mistake.

Fighter Salaries Revisited: More Sponsorship Tax & EA Ban Analysis

July 13, 2009

By Kelsey Philpott

The recent kerfuffle due to the new “sponsorship tax” that the UFC has levied against companies looking to sponsor (read: advertise with) UFC fighters has brought me back to some pieces I did last summer on addressing the problems behind MMA’s compensation system.

It should come as no surprise that fighter pay is still an issue in the sport: the issue of pay or “compensation” is and probably forever will be a hot button topic.

Why? People, much like corporations, are inherently greedy and always want more.

It’s funny, too, because some of the very same individuals that are clamoring for better pay and benefits as employees are sometimes the principles being served by those “greed, money-grubbing” agent corporations that are trying to “shaft” their own employees in order to maximize shareholder wealth.

This is the way of the world.

The compensation issues within MMA seem to be just a small part of a much larger issue: the perceived fair and ethical treatment of the fighters in general. It’s a very large blanket issue that covers safety, contract transparency, property and likeness rights, non-fight work requirements, and compensation, amongst others.

Lately, the sponsorship tax and EA MMA ban have become lightning rods for the fair and ethical treatment issue.

The Sponsorship Tax

To most, the UFC has come across as greedy and monopolistic in its efforts to charge potential fighter sponsors a reported semi-annual $100,000 fee to advertise their brands on the apparel of UFC fighters. Furthermore, the organization appears vindictive in trying to ban the collective fighter community from signing with EA’s MMA video game.

However, from the UFC’s perspective, it feels its actions are completely justified.

The UFC is the platform by which sponsors are trying to reach a particular demographic. By levying a sponsorship tax, the UFC feels it is accomplishing two goals: a.) it’s bringing the cost and value of sponsorship back to its equilibrium level, and b.) it’s bringing back a bit of lost control over its brand image and appearance. The UFC also felt slighted by EA Sports in the past and is now looking to protect its interests and those of its loyal partner (THQ) by helping to keep all fighters under the same “UFC umbrella.”

The two sides are on opposite ends of the spectrum here, and in looking for a solution, we’re best to start in the middle (where else, right?).

Probably the best solution to meet both the interests of the fighters and the UFC in regards to sponsorship is for the UFC to become a sponsorship middleman in a sense (I know…there’s a part of the MMA community cringing right now, but read on).

While fighters should be free to seek externally negotiated endorsements, the UFC and the fighters could be best served through implementing a program whereby the UFC acts as an intermediary to seek out and assign sponsorships to those fighters in need. In turn, the UFC could take a percentage not only for its service, but also as a platform fee.

The benefits of such a plan are numerous:

1.) The UFC would retain enough control and influence over what appears on its telecasts to properly shape its image as it sees fit. In the process it receives a platform fee and helps return the cost of marketing to what it feels is the equilibrium.

2.) The fighters benefit from the extensive network base of the UFC, and they’re likely to receive a greater sum of money in the long-run as a result of the UFC’s help.

3.) The percentage of each individual sponsorship – as opposed to the $100,000 fee – that goes to the UFC would also mean that the smaller players on the sponsorship scale aren’t totally eliminated from the equation. Further, the UFC could cap the gross amount of sponsorship tax at $100,000 so as to not penalize the big boys any further.

4.) In retaining those smaller sponsors, it’s also easier for the undercard and preliminary fighters to round out their pay. More options, more money essentially.

It seems like an even-keeled way to meet the interests of both the UFC and its fighters; quite reminiscent of a suggesting made last year around this time.

What about the EA ban?

The UFC’s animosity towards EA and the loyalty towards THQ is understandable – nobody likes a bandwagon jumper. After all, it’s reasonable to be loyal to those that helped you to get where you are. However, there’s a difference between loyalty and bridge-burning.

The UFC can no longer afford to give the finger to everyone that might have pissed them off a few years ago. If the sport is going to grow, the community as a whole – not just the UFC – is going to have to accept the fact that people are going to change their minds about MMA. And, really, isn’t that the point: to convince people that MMA is legitimate and that they should want to be involved with the sport?

Furthermore, the UFC cannot afford to limit their talent pool by imposing bans on future fighters – that’s why it’s an empty threat. The UFC has shown great precedence for going back on its word in regards to fighters they’d “NEVER” sign, but let’s be honest: there’s no such thing as NEVER in this business. If the UFC wants to have the best of the best, they’ll go out and get them “eventually” and that includes anyone that signs with EA.

Besides, competition is a good thing. A competing title is going to eliminate developmental complacency and spur innovation. You’ve also got to figure that enough intellectual piggy-backing will occur that the MMA community ends up with excellent video game representations of the sport – something which has proven to be a valuable marketing and awareness tool for other sports.

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