The biggest news coming out of Saturday’s UFC event in Manchester, England, was not the results of any of the matches or any potential title implications.
It’s about UFC publicly tipping its hand for its new European business strategy.
UFC President Dana White
after the show talked about plans to run 12 to 16 European shows a year. Garry Cook, the UFC’s Managing Director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, talked about expanding the office, including the hiring of a matchmaker, who will double as a talent scout.
It’s the beginning of a new era when it comes to the promotion. Up to this point, every UFC event has been available in some form, whether it be cable, network or pay-per-view television, in the core United States market. And every show since Zuffa purchased the company has been put together under the auspices of matchmaker Joe Silva
, who handles the lightweights through heavyweights, and in recent years, Sean Shelby
, who handles with flyweights through featherweights, as well as the women.
They have made most of the calls on new talent to be signed, and how to bring that talent through the ranks. Matchmaking itself is an art and a minefield. Some fighters have more star power than others. Some fighters with star power may have glaring weaknesses and it’s best to avoid a certain type of opponent on their way up. Some fighters may be consistent winners, but boring to the audience, and you have to be cognizant of that as far as where you put them on a show.
There are a multitude of lessons that matchmakers learn based on experience, and this is the first major change of the system as it has been in place.
While a new matchmaker would have to work with Silva and Shelby in coordinating not only the name talent on the main roster, but in time, the newly signed European talent that at some point will have to get exposure on major North American shows if they are truly going to rise to the top. Then it will become a fight as to whether they are used on the European circuit, where they would be the not familiar, or on a major North American show, where they will eventually need to be on if they have potential to be title contenders and worldwide stars.
This represents a major change in the way the company has created its lineups. Inevitably, it was bound to happen, as it’s only humanly possible to put together a finite number of shows in a given time period and the company’s goals have always been creating a sport practiced and competed in worldwide.
Exactly how many of the European shows will air in the U.S. is unclear. But with 35 televised events, between pay-per-view, FOX, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2, scheduled for 2014, and attempts to keep up a regular schedule in Brazil as well as North America, the simple math says times are changing.
One UFC source this week noted to us that if and when the plans for Europe go through, that many of the events won’t air on U.S. television.
They may air on the Internet, which is fine, but Internet broadcasts of UFC prelims of major shows rarely break 50,000 viewers worldwide. The audience that would watch prelims of smaller shows would, if anything, be less than that. The technology is there for the super fans to see just about everything, but that is only a tiny percentage of the audience, and not the audience that is the key. In a business that revolves around exposing names and creating stars, those shows and the fighters on those shows will mean very little in North America.
Besides having a regular presence throughout Europe, The idea behind this is expanding into new markets and running existing ones on a regular basis. It’s also to have live television that will air in prime time throughout Europe. The big UFC events currently start at 3 a.m. in London, for example. That’s fine for the biggest UFC fans, it’s not a time slot that is going to result in any big numbers of viewers unless there is something gigantic going on.
The idea is to sign European fighters to fight on the shows with the idea of creating local stars in the key countries. One thing that has become clear is a key in developing interest and awareness of the brand is having national stars, like Georges St-Pierre
in Canada, the multitude of big names that come from Brazil, Michael Bisping
in the U.K. and Alexander Gustafsson
But to create those new stars, there has to be significant viewership for these events on television in the markets, and a receptive media.
The question becomes how much existing star power will be needed to sell tickets and get viewers in Europe to watch the television. With American fans picking and choosing what they watch more and more, even on shows like Saturday, which are televised into the U.S., the number of viewers for a show airing at noon on the West Coast, where UFC’s highest concentration of popularity is – particularly for an Fox Sports 2 broadcast – is limited.
may have looked spectacular in his middleweight debut, but the benefit when it comes to interest in future Machida fights in that division is nothing compared to what it would be had that show aired live in prime time on a bigger platform. Keep in mind that at least some of the shows will include some name stars that won’t even have the visibility of Saturday’s show.
For example, Conor McGregor is a natural to be a European headliner, particularly for a show in Ireland. But if he’s on a show that isn’t televised, when most fighters are only doing two fighters a year and the goal is three, that takes him off an existing North American show. That removes a potential star from the U.S. scene during that cycle, slightly diluting the star power of the major shows, and the average American UFC TV viewer will see less of him or any European star on the rise.
But the key to the success of this venture is the European audience. Are they willing to support the UFC brand name for shows that will be filled with lesser-name stars, at least at first? Having the shows in prime time is great, but only if the fan base is willing to watch what would be shows with less star power on a consistent basis. If they are, then with familiarity, the successful fighters featured will theoretically become stars to the European fans, and hopefully stars that can be competitive will emerge from different countries. And if a true superstar emerges, perhaps they can become a major national attraction.
The WWE brand name has been successful exported in many European countries, but there is a huge difference. With WWE, they usually tour a few times a year and are careful not to burn out the markets, but the nature of their industry allows then to run the live events filled with the biggest stars. It’s not a matter of more places being run diluting the star power of the events.
Historically, the popularity of combat sports in different countries revolves around national heroes. There was amazing short-term popularity of MMA and kickboxing in Croatia during the prime of Mirko Cro Cop in the early and mid-2000s, or in Switzerland in the 1990s during the prime of kickboxer Andy Hug. It’s even more pronounced in boxing currently in Germany and The Ukraine with the Klitschkos, or in recent years in the U.K. with Ricky Hatton, David Haye, Amir Khan or Carl Froch.
But a lot of that, such as in kickboxing, it was a short-term boom based on a charismatic superstar and had no legs once that star was no longer around.
Will these types of shows be able to consistently draw in major arenas? And if the television deals are strong enough financially, will it even be necessary to run these frequent events in big halls? Clearly, a key component is television partners who are not just looking at airing the major U.S. events with the big names to garner viewership today, but those with long-term goals in building the sport.
Another key to this growth is training facilities. If, say, a fighter from Poland emerges with some star quality, right now, to really compete at the top level, the best places to learn and grow are still camps in North America and Brazil.
If the Polish star ends up living in Albuquerque, N.M., San Jose, Calif., South Florida, Montreal or Rio de Janeiro, their value in being there all the time for media and public appearances in Poland is compromised. Rome isn’t built in a day, but the ultimate goal is not for stars to emerge, but for roots to grow where you can have top quality training and depth or training partners in these emerging markets.
But don’t kid yourself, with it is going to come major changes in the UFC business and in American fans being able to keep up with that business.
Here’s a look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars on Saturday night:
LYOTO MACHIDA –
The former light heavyweight champion could not have looked better in his middleweight debut. Machida (20-4), looked in his most impressive shape physically, while knocking out previously ranked No. 5 contender Mark Munoz
in 3:10 with a left high kick.
The win was so impressive that Machida could get a title shot tomorrow in his new division and few would complain. Very few could solve the Machida riddle at light heavyweight, and it’s probably going to be more difficult for the middleweights.
Dana White talked about Vitor Belfort
as a next opponent, which makes sense. Right now, you’ve got Machida, Belfort (23-10) and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (19-3) all on the horizon as legitimate contenders should Chris Weidman
retain the title against Anderson Silva
on Dec. 28.
But if Silva wins, as he’s favored to do, the situation becomes frustrating. It’s questionable whether Machida or Souza would face Silva, although Machida just beat a friend and training partner in Munoz. Silva has also said he has no interest in facing Belfort again. So the division is either en route to its most exciting period in its history, or a frustrating logjam whether the best fights are the ones that can’t be made.
JIMI MANUWA –
Manuwa, one of the big stars of the U.K. MMA scene before signing with UFC last year, moved his record up to 14-0, with all 13 knockouts and one submission. In stopping Ryan Jimmo
, he’s continued his streak of never seeing the third round of a fight.
Dana White said that it’s now time to move him into bigger name fights. A name that stands out is Thiago Silva
(16-3), who is more experienced, but it the kind of fighter who can test Manuwa at his strength. That can be his final test before hitting the Phil Davis
, Alexander Gustafsson and Dan Henderson
JOHN LINEKER –
With his third straight devastating knockout, Lineker (23-6) kills the axiom of flyweights not having punching power. But he’s also killed the concept of flyweights, given that he missed weight for the third time in Saturday’s win over Phil Harris
Dana White spoke after the show about getting him with Mike Dolce
and making assurances he can make weight. But if that’s the case, he’s very lucky. A third time missing weight should be an automatic signal that you have to move up to a division the promotion can be assured you can make weight in.
Sure, Lineker vs. John Dodson
(15-6), coming off Dodson’s equally impressive knockout of Darrell Montague
, is a natural match up in the division. But Lineker first has to prove he can fight in that division before getting the benefit of a shot against a top ranked contender like Dodson.
JESSICA ANDRADE –
Having just turned 22, Andrade (10-3) came highly touted in her UFC debut. But she simply couldn’t handle the size and strength of Liz Carmouche
, in losing via ground and pound on July 27.
In going against someone her own size in Rosi Sexton
, Andrade left a different impression. She came off like a female 2001 model Wanderlei Silva
, an aggressive puncher with accuracy and stamina.
Her problem is just that: going against someone her own size. Andrade, at a listed 5-foot-2, is stocky and strong, but doesn’t have the genetic size to handle the bigger and stronger women at 135 and that poses a natural limitation to her upside. Her style is entertaining. She had one of the best fights of the night, even though it should have been stopped in the second round and turned ugly in the last round when Sexton seemed like target practice more than competition by round three.
It is likely only a matter of time before more women’s weight divisions are opened up. It’s not a move I’d recommend rushing into for UFC at this point, but at some point it is a lock to happen. Given Andrade’s age, she’s likely to be around, and be a star, when that day comes.
AL IAQUINTA –
The finalist of season 15 of The Ultimate Fighter, Iaquinta (7-2-1), has shown a complete game with disciplined stand-up in winning decisions over Ryan Couture
and Piotr Hallmann. But the jury remains out on where he stands in the deep lightweight division. Myles Jury
(13-0), who has a stellar record but also hasn’t broken through to the higher level in the division, or solid mid-level fighter Matt Wiman
(15-7) would be good next tests to see if he’s going to be ready for the bigger names.
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