Opinion: The Silver Lining of a Mass Firing

By Jordan Breen Oct 21, 2016
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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No matter how we may try to run from them, life's inevitabilities are, well, just that: inevitable. Nothing lasts forever, all good things must come to an end, we're all born to die, all those maxims. In July, when it became official that Zuffa had sold the Ultimate Fighting Championship to talent agency WME-IMG and a group of investors, it was obvious the sport had changed forever and with the new regime taking over in 2017, those changes were not far away.

Yet, even when we know what's going to come to pass, we're still not always ready for it. So, suffice to say, this week's massive round of UFC firings, from social media and public relations flaks to high-ranking executives, still hit the MMA world like a surprise punch to the stomach. Even in a week where arguably the greatest mixed martial artist ever, Georges St. Pierre, declared himself a free agent and escalated his stand-off with Dana White and the UFC to a potentially historic level, the UFC's employee exodus was so massive and profound that it was still able to gain similar traction and generate just as much, if not more, discussion.

According to Ariel Helwani's reports, approximately 80 percent of the UFC's Canadian office has been let go, and half of the UFC Asia team. Virtually every Vice President or General Manager of a UFC regional office was let go, including former Manchester City exec Garry Cook, one of the most celebrated signings in Zuffa history, fighters included, and the man whose name was floated as a possible UFC presidential replacement under WME-IMG if White opted to bow out of the company.

Again, everyone knew a massive round of firings would come to pass. As brilliantly summed up in Matt Connolly's article for Forbes, “New UFC Owners Ditching Company's Plans For 'World F--king Domination,” WME-IMG taking on $1.8 billion in Zuffa debt -- a number large enough for investor Goldman Sachs to reportedly get a warning from the Federal Reserve -- was going to necessitate immediate business changes and that was obviously going to include mass firings. A company like WME-IMG is well-stocked with social media and PR experts who were naturally going to be installed to replace the previous regime, nonetheless, the degree of the executive bloodletting was stunning and truly laid out WME-IMG's vision for the UFC's future.

In 2013, the UFC staged 33 cards. In 2014, that number jumped to 46. Last year, there were 41 UFC events and unless there's another surprise card cancelation, we'll have 41 on the books for 2016 when UFC 207 closes out the year. In the last three years, the sheer volume of UFC cards has become a pervasive theme and talking point, constantly recurring and implicitly working its way into almost any MMA conversation. “Oversaturation” simply became a part of the sport's lexicon as the UFC's broadcast deal with Fox -- or more specifically, Fox Sports 1's launch in August 2013 -- forced a bloated schedule on a promotion.

Four months later, the UFC launched Fight Pass. Nevermind that the UFC's new digital platform would obviously need its own live fight content on top of the promotion's pay-per-view and cable obligations, the very nature of Fight Pass -- an online platform aimed at a global audience, not beholden to any broadcast partner -- only emboldened Zuffa in terms of its aggressive international expansion. After a shaky launch, Fight Pass has become an incredibly impressive and outstanding resource on the whole, but it's little wonder “Fight Pass card” became a euphemism, a flippant way to snicker about weak undercards filled with fighters you've never heard of. Then again, the UFC's distended schedule and swelling card sizes has created a world where people tend to celebrate Fight Pass cards, largely due to the fact that there's a chance they less than say, five hours, as opposed to watching 13-fight events on Fox Sports 1 with endless commercials and chewing up seven hours of your day.

This world is drawing to a close. Yes, there will still be interminable Fox Sports 1 cards and questionable Fight Pass events, but the target for the WME-IMG group is to promote approximately 30 shows per year and focus largely on strong domestic markets. Although new ownership will still have to satisfy its international broadcasters such as Brazil's Rede Globo, five Brazilian shows a year is a thing of the past. Most Canadian MMA fans will have to make the pilgrimage to Montreal or Toronto, rather than waiting for that extra third Canadian UFC card to come to their own backyard. European superfans who buy tickets whenever the Octagon hits their continent will get far fewer passport stamps.

Yes, it's lousy on a certain level that fewer shows in unique markets and fewer shows period means that fewer fans have that chance to see a live UFC, just as it's lousy that a whole bunch of UFC employees lost their jobs this week, just as it's lousy that the reduction in cards means 2017 will see a tremendous amount of fighters losing their jobs, as well. That said, no sane person who likes watching high-level MMA could possibly argue that the UFC's exponential schedule growth has been a net positive for the actual product. There was a time when MMA fans excoriated the sort of Las Vegas crowds that would nab expensive tickets and saunter in for the last two fights. Now, even the most diehard fan can probably find it in their heart to forgive someone who just couldn't handle sitting in an arena for eight hours, especially when the chances of being subjected to fights like Daniel Kelly-Patrick Walsh are higher than ever.

I'm not a complete idiot, I know we're not going back to eight-fight events with three undercard bouts. Still, even if 10 fights per card became the standard instead of 12 or 13, it would appreciably improve the UFC-watching experience and bolster the chances of any person not just seeing the whole card, but help curb the idea that certain portions of a UFC fight card are inherently skippable. More than all of that, even if fewer cards means fewer fighters, we're not talking about UFC champions and pound-for-pound stalwarts getting pink slips. WME-IMG's primary intent with this massive restructuring is to spend less money and to see return on investment, but I can't imagine how these measures won't improve card quality and considerably so.

Again, this is MMA. Folks are going to blow drug tests, get injured and we will still wind up with some lame duck main events from time to time. But in our current climate, so many UFC events, even pay-per-views, end up looking like houses of cards precariously balanced on the strength of the main event and we've come to accept and not even be surprised when the UFC is forced to cancel cards, in spite of the fact that as crazy as it seems now, when UFC 151 was nixed four years ago, it was an unfathomable bombshell.

Just over a year ago, Zuffa headlined a PPV with a Demetrious Johnson-John Dodson rematch and did an estimated 115,000 buys and drew less than a $1.4 million gate in Las Vegas. Everyone knew it would be a failure and worse, it only furthered the narrative that Johnson, maybe the best fighter in the game today, was terminal box office cancer. While the originally discussed Daniel Cormier-Alexander Gustafsson bout wouldn't have turned UFC 191 into a great success, the UFC's schedule still engendered a world where the promotion was forced to put one of its champions, and the company itself, in a position which failure was the only option. Everyone, right down to poor Johnson, knew this thing would flop. Everyone saw the train barreling down the tracks and there was nothing anyone could do except wait for the crash.

Thirty or fewer cards per year should mean fewer inevitable promotional disasters that we're simply forced to watch unfold. Not every card will look like UFC 205, but you'll be far less likely to see an unfamiliar face on a PPV, only to be shocked when you realize they've actually had six fights in the Octagon already. More than that, de-emphasizing international expansion should also appreciably improve the overall quality of the UFC roster.

It's not just that roster's sheer size that's a problem, nor the fact that the skill and ability of the entire MMA talent pool drops off considerably once you get outside the world's best 200 or 300 fighters. UFC card quality has suffered explicitly because Zuffa's globetrotting efforts led to them signing literally hundreds of regional fighters to appeal to regional markets where MMA is underdeveloped. In years to come, it's entirely possible that the Mexican or Australian MMA scenes may blossom by virtue of Zuffa's promotional efforts in this era, but where we stand today, the UFC has essentially created a sub-class of fighters on its own roster with athletes you wouldn't be impressed by if you saw them on AXS.

I don't relish people losing their jobs and as I said, it's worse knowing that more firings are to come and eventually, that will liberally extend to fighters themselves. Regardless, even if WME-IMG's primary goal in this restructuring is just to spend less and make more money, the implications for the actual UFC product are clear, considerable and frankly, exciting. In the future, when the new-look UFC does go back to an international market, there's less of a chance Thales Leites is one half of the main event. You might even recognize everybody on the undercard, insane as that sounds. It's one hell of a silver lining.
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