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No industry is exempt from cycling through boom and bust periods. It’s a staple of capitalist economies and, frankly, an inevitability given the interconnectedness of the digital world. Even the most tightly managed and vertically integrated companies are subject to consequences from outside forces beyond their control. Perpetual growth is an impossible illusion, and if anything, contraction is more of a guarantee than expansion.
There’s no question that this has been a down year so far for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The four pay-per-view cards of 2017 have all, to varying degrees, failed to make a blip on the wider sports radar outside of MMA diehards. The trend seems to be swinging upward, with UFC 211 being the most successful event so far; and there are some solid events lined up for the next few pay-per-views. A lot will be riding on their success.
That’s not to say there haven’t been good fights or even good fight cards, but sports are more than just games; there is a vital business infrastructure that needs to be in smooth working condition in order for the games to happen in the first place. The business side may not be your personal cup of tea, but if you’re a fan of the actual fights, then the business climate affects your areas of interest nonetheless.
Having a down year itself shouldn’t be cause for concern for the titanic organization. Remember, 2014 wasn’t that long ago, and a lot of these ideas floated just as freely then: The UFC’s product was getting stale, pay-per-view numbers were dipping and there were too many shows. Those were legitimate arguments three years ago and became almost immediately obsolete talking points for the next two years thanks to Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. Both 2015 and 2016 are among the most successful pay-per-view years in UFC history, but 2017 is showing just how important it is for stars to be in the sport. In 2015, 61 percent of the total pay-per-view buys were from the five cards headlined by either McGregor or Rousey. In 2016, they headlined a combined four cards and accounted for 62 percent of all buys in the UFC’s most successful year ever. Of course, there are other factors like ticket sales and cable viewership that keep the money circulating, but the UFC largely gets its bread buttered through pay-per-view buys.
The dearth of popular cards is not the problem. It’s a symptom of a larger, more tangled problem: More than ever, the UFC depends on its fighters, yet it still operates from the old mentality that the UFC brand comes first and fighters, at best, come second. McGregor taking time off and demanding ownership stakes in the company combined with Rousey’s general absence and unlikely return make for a gaping hole in the company’s popularity and success. On top of all of that, fighters in less influential positions are steadily abandoning company lines.
Take, for instance, Kajan Johnson confronting UFC brass about the Reebok deal at the athlete retreat over the weekend. Not only did he directly -- and correctly -- accuse the deal of robbing him of sponsorship money, but he called bulls--- on the corporate rebuttal that the Reebok deal’s goal is to help the fighters. He was generally applauded for the sentiment. A few years ago, it would have been unimaginable for a relatively unknown fighter to take such a vocal stance against the UFC, but here we are.
Ironically, the Reebok deal was packaged as a means to bring greater mainstream legitimacy to the sport, but in reality, it’s only forced the hands of more fighters to turn to public begging or chastising the UFC for more money. If that’s considered professional behavior, then the UFC is truly blazing the trail for sports leagues everywhere, leagues whose athletes are so amateurish and well-paid that they don’t have to beg for money. Let that sink in for a moment. It probably has something to do with the unionization in other sports, a topic that keynote speaker Kobe Bryant promoted at the UFC-sponsored athlete retreat. That’s to say nothing of the other hijinks from the Fyre Festival-esque retreat, like all-time great Cristiane Justino punching Angela Magana -- “She’s still in the UFC?” -- for being mean on social media or the Anheuser-Busch rep allegedly showing up drunk to talk about how fighters should represent themselves in public to cultivate their image, punctuating his speech by imploring fighters to be more like McGregor.
I was the victim of roid rage today. Hope it was worth your job. Sue happy lawyers hitting me up left and right now #Cyborg— Angela Magana (@AngelaMagana1) May 22, 2017
When WME-IMG purchased the UFC, it was expected that it would know how to promote the different personalities that compose the roster. Instead, it seems as clueless as ever. At Bellator 179, former UFC standout Rory MacDonald put on a clinic against Paul Daley, reminding everyone just how pennywise and pound foolish the UFC was to let him walk. Yet that’s the problem: The UFC is either unable or unwilling to promote the unique and admittedly low-key MacDonald. He can’t be a McGregor, and he shouldn’t try to be. There are legions of fans, especially in Canada, who love his soft-spoken humility and analytical confidence. Telling people to act more like the biggest star in the sport is not only thoughtless but absolutely bad advice. McGregor has been a boon for the UFC’s bottom line, but he’s been a thorn in its side in the negotiating room, too. Plus, his shtick will only be diluted by seas of copycats. How this has continued to elude a world-class talent agency is beyond stupefying.
None of this is new. Things have been confusing and upside-down for a while now. The latest season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which surprisingly doesn’t suck, is built on the promotional hook that UFC fighters have to work regular jobs in order to train. Who knows? Maybe the working-class appeal of it is a stroke of genius, but it’s hard to sit back and process the fact that the contestants of the show are the best arguments against the show’s promise to change the lives of the winners. Yet this is the advertising angle. I would almost feel better if they tried to sweep the financial struggles of former “Ultimate Fighter” winners under the rug like the good ol’ days.
As much fun as it can be to snicker at the failings of the top dog, nobody wants to see the UFC’s credibility erode. It hurts everyone -- the fighters, the fans and everyone with paychecks tied to the success of the sport. However, more and more the new WMG-IME era of the UFC is starting to look like the “This is fine” meme, and it’s that much more frustrating because the errors seem more boneheaded than anything else. These are not outside factors weighing upon the UFC; they are almost uniformly willed into existence through mismanagement and myopia. Whether it’s the disregard for rankings and title shots or the inability to promote fighters, something has to change.
If you dive head-first into a hole and start digging, it may seem like you’re moving in the right direction; after all, the dirt is above your head, so that must mean you’re going up. Problem is, everyone else only sees legs sticking out of the hole, impotently flailing, while you work tirelessly to dig yourself in a deeper darker dirtier mess.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.