I’m back from my hiatus. I’ve finished building a logistic regression model to predict UFC fights but I haven’t tested it on out-of-sample data yet. If I run the test and find that the model works, I’ll tell you more about it. For now, I’m back to regular blogging about the UFC and the sport of MMA.
I’ve made it known on a number of occasions that I’m disappointed about how the UFC has run its business the last couple years. The UFC has decided to embrace a business strategy of quantity over quality – of running a very high number of events in a lot of different places. This seems to be an offshoot of the UFC’s desire to go global and the strategy associated with it. The UFC formula for expanding to a country seems to involve the following steps:
- Establish a television presence
- Build awareness of the sport by airing a season of The Ultimate Fighter
- Run live events in the region, using the fighters who competed on TUF as draws while also promoting more established stars
The problem with running TUF in Brazil, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, China, and Mexico to go along with the United States is that it infuses the UFC roster with a very large number of fighters who otherwise simply wouldn’t make it to the big show. The only way to truly support this roster expansion is to run more live events – or cut the vast majority of fighters from these seasons of TUF, which the UFC seems unwilling to do. In fact, the UFC seems to be all too happy to run more live events around the world in general.
I understand that there are people who enjoy having a UFC event to watch on almost every weekend. I also have no problem with taking the UFC to various locations around the world – as a viewer, I really enjoy watching fights with the raucous crowds watching from places like Ireland. The problem is that the UFC needs headlining fights for these extra events, and that has left the contending portion of the roster spread very thin.
The result? A recent trend of UFC pay per views featuring fights that are simply unworthy of the platform.
- UFC 176 was cancelled
- UFC 177 ended up with T.J. Dillashaw vs. Joe Soto as the main event. That’s Renan Barao’s fault, not the UFC’s, but having Danny Castillo vs. Tony Ferguson, Bethe Correia vs. Shayna Baszler, Carlos Diego Ferreira vs. Ramsey Nijem, and Yancy Medeiros vs. Damon Jackson as supporting fights absolutely is the UFC’s fault.
- UFC 178 was a strong lineup, even if the main event of Demetrious Johnson vs. Chris Cariaso wasn’t a compelling matchup.
- UFC 179 had two strong fights at the top of the card (Aldo-Mendes, Davis-Teixeira) but the remainder of the pay per view main card was lackluster.
- UFC 180 had Augusto Montano vs. Chris Heatherly and Hector Urbina vs. Edgar Garcia on the main card. Their combined UFC record going in was 0-3.
A lot of people are blaming injuries but that excuse doesn’t really work for me. There have been injuries in the UFC since there’s been a UFC. The standard operating procedure of the past for the UFC was to stack a pay per view card and then watch as injuries reduced it to being simply a good card. Sometimes injuries would really hit hard – look at UFC 133, which went from Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans to Rashad Evans vs. Lyoto Machida to Rashad Evans vs. Tito Ortiz. And yet the UFC still delivered a respectable pay per view lineup. I get that some of the top stars out there have been the ones getting injured recently, but I still think the UFC has more than enough talent to put together some quality fight cards.
The effect of the UFC running 45+ shows in a year is that pay per view worthy fights have been siphoned off to headline UFC Fight Night events on Fox Sports 1 or UFC Fight Pass. Not only does this leave existing pay per view shows hanging, it does a disservice to would-be contenders who need to be built up and promoted. A perfect example of this is Luke Rockhold vs. Michael Bisping. That matchup is a perfect opportunity to promote Rockhold as a credible threat to Chris Weidman’s middleweight title, on a pay per view or UFC on Fox main card. Show Rockhold finishing Bisping off, have him get on the microphone and say “Chris Weidman, I’m coming for your belt” or some such thing, and just like that, fans know who Luke Rockhold is and would probably want to see him challenge for the title. Instead, the fight aired on UFC Fight Pass, where I doubt very many people watched it, and Rockhold remains relatively unknown.
It’s possible that the UFC business is running better than ever due to their expanding television presence overseas, but recent reports would seem to suggest that the business has really slowed down. Last month, Standard and Poors reported that the UFC’s EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) was expected to decline by 40 percent. That report was widely discussed in the MMA blogosphere, so this is probably old news for most of you reading this.
Reported buys of pay per view shows are routinely checking in at under 250,000, a number that would have been considered very poor just a few years ago. Earning 400,000 buys would be considered a strong number right now, whereas that number would have been considered closer to average in 2010.
With the recent release of the UFC schedule and 45 planned events set to take place in 2015, it’s clear that the UFC is doubling down on its current business strategy. I sure hope that fighters stay healthy enough to make most of these shows compelling, but the odds are very long against that.
There is a sweet spot that balances the quality of these events with the quantity of these events. In my opinion, the UFC found that sweet spot just three years ago, running 27 events in 2011. I hope the UFC will eventually return to promoting a similar number of events, which will give a proper platform and audience to rising talent, and allow for not only each event to feature strong talent, but allow fans of the UFC to keep up with the schedule. I’m not going to hold my breath.
Other things I hope the UFC will do in the future include:
- Make advertising less monotonous. Far too many UFC advertisements in recent memory feature a highlight reel of the fighters involved with a bunch of sound clips of Joe Rogan yelling “OHHHHH,” “HE HURT HIM!,” and “THAT GUY IS A (monster/destroyer/savage/killer/beast).” Advertising like this makes it feel too much like every event just features “Nondescript Fighter A vs. Nondescript Fighter B.” I swear I’ve heard this exact soundtrack played for so many UFC events recently:
- Invest resources in injury prevention measures. Sports teams like the San Antonio Spurs have consulted with firms like Apollo MIS, developing strategies to prevent injuries and maximize performance. I think the UFC should do the same and then distribute that information with major gyms – information on how best to balance fight preparation with injury prevention. This would be an uphill battle as I’m sure coaches would be very reluctant to change their methods, but I don’t think we have to live with a sport in which injuries are so prevalent. Obviously there is no way to get rid of injuries entirely, but I’d like to see some resources invested in trying to find better, safer ways to prepare for fights. Here’s an example of a very high profile fighter doing something that is very risky injury-wise, but doesn’t actually help his fighting ability one bit:
- Cut down on the roster size. I really hate to be the bad guy here, but there are undoubtedly fighters on the UFC roster who are not even in the top 1000 on the pound-for-pound list (and I’m not just talking about CM Punk here). I’m a football fan, but I don’t particularly care to watch Division 3 college football – I want to watch the best teams in the world. The same thing goes for the UFC. I want to watch the best fighters compete and it’s tiring watching guys like the cast of TUF: Latin America, who I know are going nowhere at a high level. That leads me to my next point…
- Get rid of TUF. If the UFC insists on using TUF to introduce itself to new markets, that’s fine, but the USA version needs to be put out of its misery. I watched TUF 20 because it featured a tournament to crown the first women’s strawweight champion. What I saw was a show that featured segments on why Angela Hill likes to fart and why the girls wanted Tecia Torres to move to another room, among other things. It’s just horrible television. I really don’t see how this reality show is helping the UFC these days. Seriously, get rid of it.
At the end of the day, I’m still a fan of the UFC and I still love this sport, but I think the UFC has lost its way in some respects. My sincere hope is that the UFC can prove me wrong, and that its current strategies will eventually help usher in a new “golden era” of MMA. A pay per view with Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier is a nice start. Here’s hoping for a fun 2015.