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To this point, Combate Americas has largely done things the right way. So many startup mixed martial arts organizations jump out of the starting gate with lofty goals only to have their hopes dashed in quick order. They spend money to generate buzz, but there is no realistic game plan for sustainable progress. When the initial investment money runs out, that’s the end. This pattern has played out countless times over the last 15 years. Combate Americas, by contrast, has operated with a brand identity in mind and a long term vision. It has led to incremental growth.
Rather than a broad approach, Combate Americas has focused on a specific demographic: young Hispanics. Hispanic audiences have fervently embraced combat sports in the United States and Mexico, while the MMA boom of last decade was built around younger viewers, making this a natural target. It’s also an advertiser-friendly group and Combate Americas has went after it aggressively by concentrating its shows in Mexico and the Southwest United States while securing a quality television deal with Univision. The organization has built its audience there while largely flying under the radar of many fans who watch Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA (which was similarly built in its early days with a focus on the Hispanic audience).
Given Combate Americas’ success the past four years, the promotion has decided to take the leap and will run its biggest event to date Dec. 7. While they were wise to take their time, they now find themselves in the same predicament so many companies in the past have found themselves in. They need to sell a pay-per-view event and no MMA company other than the UFC has found a way to consistently make money on PPV.
Combate’s event will succeed or fail based on the main event. It’s easily the fight with the most star power in the history of the promotion as UFC legend Tito Ortiz takes on second generation pro wrestling superstar Alberto El Patron, AKA Alberto Rodriguez. What’s intriguing about the fight from a marketing standpoint is the different demographics the two men appeal to. It’s the Mexican against the Mexican-American, the UFC star against the WWE star, the self-made man against lucha libre royalty.
It’s also one heck of an uphill climb to sell on pay-per-view for $29.99. Both men are in their 40s. Ortiz has been surprisingly successfully in the cage since leaving the UFC (4-1 with three finishes) but he hasn’t moved the needle in the way he did in his prime. Alberto is best known in the MMA context for getting knocked out by Mirko Filipovic while wearing a mask and he has faded from relevance in pro wrestling since leaving WWE and the AAA pro wrestling promotion in Mexico.
The fight has appeal, but it’s as a novelty, a curiosity. Some fights can mean a lot whether they are aired on television or on pay-per-view; fans will pay to see the fight and they’ll also watch in large numbers for free. Other fights can draw plenty of viewers if they air for free but are the sorts of fights that those fans aren’t going a significant amount of money to pay to see.
This phenomenon was seen for Ortiz’s most recent fight with Chuck Liddell. The fight generated a lot of buzz on internet the night of. There was plenty of discussion and interest about how the fight would go and many fans would have tuned in to see Liddell’s return for free. However, the pay-per-view was a catastrophe because fans weren’t confident enough in the product to put down their money. As it turns out, those concerns were well founded. Golden Boy MMA lasted only one show.
This in a nutshell is the problem facing every MMA promotion trying to break into pay-per-view. UFC locks up pretty much every fighter that has the sort of name identity combined with current credibility that is needed to draw on pay-per-view. Other entities trying to make their way into the space typically have to rely on gimmicks or past their prime fighters, which is a risky gamble. Fedor Emelianenko was a part of most of the biggest non-UFC MMA buy rates and that was because he was the rare upper-echelon prime fighter competing outside the UFC since 2006. It’s going to be hard for anyone to reach that stature outside UFC any time soon; perhaps A.J. McKee has the best chance.
In many ways, Tito vs. Alberto is better suited for television. The problem is even if that will generate more attention for the Combate Americas brand, it’s a guaranteed money loser. Promoters hope pay-per-view for their biggest fights will provide added big fight buzz and publicity while making back enough money so as to not run too deep in the red. Unfortunately, it’s a gamble that often backfires.
Combate Americas could do all the right things and take their time growing. However, once they reached a certain level, they were faced with the same tricky predicament that makes it so difficult for MMA promotions to grow in a landscape so dominated by one player. How its Dec. 7 card goes and how the promotion follows up on that will speak loudly about how Combate is run, while also providing another case study for other promotions trying to navigate this treacherous space.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.