If you lived and breathed every word from the MMA beat writer circuit last week, the UFC’s promotion of a random fighter named Patrick Cummins was some of the most revolutionary, ground-breaking, breath-taking marketing you’ve ever seen in your life. Why, (no)Charissa(ma) Thompson was brilliant in doing a scripted segment on Fox Sports 1 with Cummins, Dana White, and Daniel Cormier to promote the concept of a guy working at a coffee shop getting a last-minute booking to fill in for Rashad Evans in the semi-main of the UFC 170 PPV. I mean, the guy is a modern day Rocky! He made Cormier cry once!
Who wouldn’t buy into this manufactured storyline? Apparently everyone in Las Vegas saw through it if you looked at the amount of empty seats at Mandalay Bay this past Saturday night. And it was well-deserved, too.
Right now, the UFC is burning its fan base out with way too many diluted cards. They think they can run a schedule like WWE can. It’s foolish. WWE has a roster of names wrestling each week. UFC has fighters lucky to fight three times a year.
The UFC has four fight cards scheduled for March 2014. And in going through those cards, I failed to recognize at least 35% of the names booked. I’ve been covering MMA both in Japan and America for decades. If I look at fight cards and don’t know who is fighting, how the hell can anyone possibly expect your standard UFC fan to know who the people they are watching fighting? But that goes back to the UFC’s philosophy — the brand is king. They are a singular league that is franchising shows every week across the globe with talent that is often foreign and not going to put up a fight in court over contracts. The fighters will take the table scraps they are being given. Hell, they’ll fight on shows that are being hidden behind internet pay walls. Why bother showcasing a real prospect like Gunnar Nelson on a London card when you can bury him and hurt potential sponsorship money by booking him for an internet fight that people can’t even watch on Youtube?
The cycle of mediocrity is taking a toll on the UFC. The media is starting to notice. Tim Marchman at Deadspin absolutely torched the UFC for the way they are marketing Ronda Rousey and other UFC fights. When the UFC gets a real lead-in like NASCAR programming, they can still pop a good TV rating. When that lead-in isn’t there and they don’t have a mega-star like GSP or Anderson Silva to headline, the numbers are all over the board. There is no consistency right now.
In 2014, the UFC needs Ronda Rousey, Daniel Cormier, and Chris Weidman to not only win big but to win often and do it in front of a lot of eyeballs. The UFC is hoping that Rousey can generate cross-over appeal by doing the movie & entertainment circuit. The UFC even claims that she’s the biggest marketing dynamo they’ve ever had, bigger than Chuck or Randy or Tito. Whatever narrative fits the bill on any given day, I guess.
I’m not here to bury the fighters. What I’m here to bury is the UFC’s current business direction and where things are heading. They’re going down the same path as WWE. Dana White recently ripped WWE for ditching PPV and going to the WWE Network business model. And yet the UFC is going down that exact same path of burning out their fans on buying mediocre, watered-down PPVs. The UFC is running so many shows and is so overexposed right now that they, too, will meet WWE’s fate soon enough and have their own “Come to Jesus” moment on business affairs. In an industry like combat sports where marketing personalities is king, the UFC’s attempt to control the MMA scene by emulating the WWE business model will prove to be challenging to sustain for the long haul. Wittingly or unwittingly, the UFC is on the path of speeding up the cycle of the challenges they will end up having to face.