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This promises to be an important year for most major MMA organizations, with each facing unique challenges in a shifting landscape. There have been significant movements of talent, with more likely on the horizon. The business plans for many organizations have shifted with new revenue streams and distribution methods. MMA product saturation means that these promotions face serious risks if they make the wrong moves. With that in mind, here are some key points for MMA’s elite promotions to focus on for a successful 2019:
Professional Fighters League: Build Around Kayla Harrison
The Professional Fighters League spent an extravagant amount of money on its tournament format in 2018. Giving out $6 million in prize money in one night to mostly unknown fighters was a feel-good story for the fighters who won, but it didn’t do a lot to enhance the promotion’s status moving forward. The idea behind the rich payouts should have been to attract more marketable talent. Instead, the PFL got largely the same talent but simply paid it way above-market value. If the PFL has money to spend and is willing to pay above-market value, there should be one athlete first in line and that’s Harrison. Harrison has everything one looks for in a breakthrough MMA star. She has the Olympic gold medal credentials. She has an engaging personality and is willing to promote herself. She also looks like a beast already in MMA competition just three fights in. Before spending any additional money on tournaments, the PFL should lock down Harrison to an exclusive long-term contract. It should look at signing Cristiane Justino and building her up as an opponent when the Brazilian’s contract is due, as well. When fans think of the PFL, get them to think about Harrison first.
UFC: Maximize ESPN Synergy
The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s new deal with ESPN has its distinct pros and cons. The biggest benefit is of course the money attached. The cons, however, are substantial. The UFC will largely be relegated to the ESPN Plus streaming platform, a location that casual sports fans are unlikely to stumble upon -- a reality that will severely limit the UFC’s ability to create new fans. The UFC will be undermining its long-term prospects in order to help build up ESPN’s prized new service. Given this reality, the UFC should push ESPN to promote its properties in as many ways as possible to offset the potential danger to the UFC’s popularity. After the money, these synergies are the greatest benefit ESPN offers the UFC. ESPN’s website has been an underrated factor in the success of some of UFC’s biggest pay-per-views. Treating those fights as major sports events goes a long way towards getting fans to elect to purchase. ESPN also has a host of sports properties that have large crossover audiences with UFC, and the more those leagues are tied together, the better it is for the UFC. The UFC is in many ways at the mercy of ESPN on these points, but the success of the UFC-ESPN relationship will largely depend on how this plays out.
Rizin Fighting Federation: Rebuild Tenshin Nasukawa
Everything had been going so well for the Rizin Fighting Federation in its promotion of Nasukawa. The undefeated 20-year-old kickboxer had popular appeal in Japan and continued to win as his reputation rose. Rizin even fed another of its top stars, Kyoji Horiguchi, to Nasukawa under the latter’s rule set in order to advance Nasukawa’s career. Rizin then came up with the brilliant plan of matching Nasukawa with the great Floyd Mayweather. The spectacle would draw a sizeable TV rating. Nasukawa would likely struggle for the scheduled nine minutes, but he would hang in there and get credit for showing heart against an all-time great fighting under a different rule set. Of course, things turned out much differently than planned for Nasukawa. He was destroyed and humiliated in short order, left crying in his biggest career fight. While this was unquestionably a major setback, Rizin has little choice but to try to build Nasukawa back up. Japanese wrestling legend Antonio Inoki was disgraced by his performance against Muhammad Ali in 1976, but over time, he rebuilt his reputation and eventually that came to be remembered fondly. Nasukawa, too, could eventually be celebrated for taking the risk against Mayweather and coming up short. Rizin needs to push forward and try to make the best of a bad situation.
One Championship: Utilize Your Acquisitions Wisely
For years, One Championship has been content to focus on the Asian market and has flown under the radar outside its home base. In 2018, that changed. With a new influx in investment money, One Championship made a series of noteworthy acquisitions, including longtime UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, former UFC-Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez and rising young star Sage Northcutt. These are arguably its three biggest stars already and will be important in One’s efforts to gain more traction in North America and raise more revenue in Asia. Booking individual combat sports stars is trickier the fewer of them you have. If you have a deep roster, the hope is that a star who loses transfers some of his or her reputation to the winner. That becomes much less likely when the star takes on a series of unknown opponents. They have little to gain and plenty to lose. Thus, One needs to be very careful in the way it promotes Johnson, Alvarez and Northcutt, as well as with the way it builds up their opponents in order to diminish this downside. Beyond protecting its investments, the way One handles these incoming stars will also affect its ability to recruit additional talent. Other young fighters will take note if Northcutt’s career sags in One or if he thrives. One can of course overcome negative perceptions by offering disproportionately high amounts of money, but that is a risky long-term approach. The ideal scenario would be to have fighters actively engaged in the idea of fighting for One. The way One has stocked its front office with highly respected former fighters surely is beneficial in that goal, but many fighters also will be carefully watching how One uses its new stars. One needs to prove it knows what it is doing in that regard.
Bellator MMA: Be Wary of DAZN
Bellator MMA’s deal with DAZN seemed almost too good to be true, which was a signal that it might just be. DAZN and Bellator announced that the promotion would receive nine figures in order to stream Bellator events on DAZN. This deal -- combined with big money for Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, Anthony Joshua and others -- announced DAZN as a major player in the combat sports landscape. However, these deals are predicated on DAZN drawing extremely high subscriber numbers for a service built around niche sports. If those subscriber numbers don’t come through, it would be a big problem, not only for DAZN but for Bellator. The Scott Coker-fronted MMA organization has been making some of its biggest events DAZN exclusives, and that trend will continue into 2019. If DAZN doesn’t take off as expected, or even if it appeals primarily to boxing fans while MMA fans view it as optional, it will mean far fewer viewers for Bellator and a diminution of its best fighters’ star power. In that scenario, by the time the contract ends, Bellator will have far less to offer its next partner. As such, Bellator needs to have an active strategy for how to keep Paramount-only viewers as involved as possible in the product. Many if not most of Bellator’s biggest events are going to be DAZN exclusives, but that doesn’t mean the promotion shouldn’t simultaneously be protecting itself from the dangers of this deal.
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.