Something is missing lately from many Ultimate Fighting Championship fight cards.
The UFC’s first doubleheader experiment on May 31 proved to be tediously long, the fatigue amongst fans palpable. Television ratings for the Brazilian portion of the twin bill on Fox Sports 1 were rather lackluster. According to Dave Meltzer, the ratings for “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3” Finale’s main card fights -- headlined by Stipe Miocic-Fabio Maldonado -- were only 50,000 viewers higher than the ratings for the preliminary bouts. We’re talking decade-old ratings low benchmarks being set here.
The UFC has reached a point where many fighters are now viewed as interchangeable on its fight cards. To those who run the company, this is a feature, not a bug. A fighter like Jon Jones, who normally wouldn’t have negotiating leverage given the disappointing pay-per-view numbers for some of his bigger fights, is actually in a position of semi-strength. Whether or not he takes advantage of it in future business remains up in the air. Truth be told, the PPV numbers for the UFC have fallen off a cliff in 2014. After two big fights involving Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva in late 2013, the public’s view of the UFC’s star power is bearish. For casual fans, the stars are missing. In MMA, it’s hard to build stars because of the volatile nature of winning fights in the kind of competitive environment the UFC and its matchmakers have created.
However, something else besides star power is missing from many of the UFC’s fight cards in 2014: the female fighters. By the end of June 2014, the UFC will have produced 22 fight cards spanning a 26-week period. An estimated 245 fights will have been booked. Of those 245 fights, only seven will have involved female fighters. Less than three percent of the fights on the UFC’s 2014 cards have involved the ladies. What is going on here?
The UFC currently has hundreds -- literally hundreds -- of male fighters in eight different weight classes: A-level, B-level and even C-level guys who wouldn’t be on the roster if it wasn’t for the fact that Zuffa decided to run a massively inflated schedule of events. The crazy slate has inflamed and exacerbated the UFC’s most significant booking weaknesses. This is not the fault of matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby. They have been put in an incredibly pressurized situation where every fighter and every gym is constantly on their case to secure future fight bookings. With so many fighters under contract and the UFC apparently unwilling to cut at least 30 percent of the fighters on its roster, we have a situation where female fighters are getting the squeeze put on them.
The question is whether or not fight fans would rather watch A- and B-level female prospects instead of C-level males like Nikita Krylov on UFC PPV main cards in 2014.
There has always been plenty of healthy skepticism about whether or not UFC President Dana White’s heart would be 100-percent motivated to promote women’s MMA. It’s not that he has a moral obligation to promote women’s MMA or to book an equal amount of female fighters on cards. However, some people say what they mean but don’t mean what they say. That was always the greatest fear for advocates of women’s MMA. Would White fall into the same pattern with Ronda Rousey that EliteXC’s Gary Shaw did with Gina Carano? It is one thing to be in the Rousey business but another thing to actually promote women’s MMA and be 100-percent committed to building new female stars.
The UFC has Season 20 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” which will feature women’s strawweights, coming down the pike. After its completion, there will be two women’s divisions in the UFC, but will that automatically mean an increased amount of female fights getting booked? To be fair to the UFC, it was dealt a difficult hand by the injuries and personal issues with which Cat Zingano and Julianna Pena have had to cope. However, you would have thought the fallout from “The Ultimate Fighter” season featuring Rousey and Miesha Tate as coaches would have produced more opportunities for the fighters that were on the show.
Let’s hypothesize that the strawweight division doubles the amount of female fights currently booked. At the UFC’s current pace in 2014, we’re looking at women involved in six percent of the matches being scheduled. If you’re a proponent of women’s MMA, you have to be a little disillusioned with the limited amount of bookings the UFC is offering to female fighters.
There is certainly a case to be made for the UFC increasing its footprint in the women’s MMA scene. If it does not have the space currently on its own fight cards to acquire talent, it could easily co-promote or fund future Invicta Fighting Championships shows the same way it ran World Extreme Cagefighting. Look at how many stars from the WEC are currently integral names in the UFC landscape. There’s also the possibility of working with the World Series of Fighting to help finance some women’s MMA fights on those cards in exchange for getting talent under contract.
The UFC needs to expand the amount of female viewers it attracts for its Fox Sports broadcasts. If the audience remains 75- to 80-percent male in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, then it’s going to be difficult domestically for the organization to grow the audience past the “hardcore” stage. Once you start losing hardcore fans, the question for television executives revolves around how far the bottom falls out with a never-ending schedule. The UFC needs more fighters who can bring some personality and charisma to the table. There are plenty of women who are ready for an opportunity to fight on a big stage and tell the world about their compelling life stories. However, the fewer opportunities there are for women to fight in a promotion like the UFC, the less money and incentive there will be for potential blue-chip prospects to jump into mixed martial arts.
The time has come for the UFC to do be more productive in spicing up its cards with a more diverse selection of fighters.