A handful of oft-repeated phrases in MMA are employed to hide issues with UFC events and the sport in general. In some cases, those expressions attempt to mask inadequacies. One of those overused sayings is, “Never let the fight go to the judges.” Another is “Don’t judge a fight card before the event.” I want to discuss the latter, because the idea that fans, who are consumers and customers, shouldn’t judge an entertainment product before consuming it is ludicrous.
Recently UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard “joked” at the expense of this site, about the complaints regarding the quality and possibly quantity of UFC cards during the current ESPN era. Maynard followed that with what I’m hoping was an earnest request to point out bad fight cards.
My sincere response to Maynard and the UFC is that he is asking the wrong question.
The wrong question
The UFC asks a lot of its fans. The promotion stages more than 40 events per year, with the bulk of those fight cards taking place on Saturday evenings. By the nature of when the UFC broadcasts its events, the promotion faces a lot of competition. When one considers the key demographic the UFC hopes to appeal to, individuals between 18-34, that competition can be fierce. With that, the UFC needs to give the undecided fans a reason to tune into an event that will consume most of their Saturday night. That’s especially important in the era of UFC Fight Pass, ESPN+ and social media.
In the days before UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, that wasn’t always the case. If a fan wanted to catch a UFC event, they usually had to do it live. Now, those fans have options. If they pass on watching a fight card as it happens, they can peruse the results, highlights, and social media conversations the day after and decide what, if anything, is worth their time.
My job is to watch every UFC event, and I do. I’m in my seat from start to finish for those events. Do I regret investing the time after the event? Rarely. Do I look forward to watching those events ahead of time after considering what is on the card? Also rarely.
That’s the problem the UFC needs to address.
The UFC is a sport, but it’s also entertainment. With that in mind, I’d like to consider what other forms of entertainment ask of us, specifically books and movies.
Do I judge a book or a movie after I am done with it? Of course. Do I judge a book or film before investing my time and money? Also, yes. I need a reason to consume that product. The UFC, in going with the logic of “Don’t judge an event until it’s over,” is missing the latter point. As a consumer, I need a reason to invest in that product other than the associated brand.
Are there some writers and directors I trust? Sure. But there are also some writers and directors I once trusted and no longer have absolute faith in. For example, at one time, Martin Scorsese was a director I could count on. Then he put that scene with the rat in it at the end of “The Departed,” and he went to the “give me a reason” to watch list. For many, the UFC is a “give me a reason” to watch product. And too often, the promotion fails to provide that reason.
It’s not the athletes
The knee-jerk reaction might be that I’m dismissing UFC athletes. That’s not the case. As I said above, I rarely regret investing time in watching a UFC fight card. The reason for that is the fighters and their effort inside the octagon. Without the fighters, the UFC has no product. The promotion sometimes seems to forget that.
My problem rests with the UFC’s long-standing business practice of putting the brand, and UFC president Dana White, before the fighters. I understand that logic, and it served the promotion well in the past. However, as dissatisfaction with the product increases, that brand-over-stars approach might be hurting the UFC.
For the most part, fans want to connect with the athletes, not with the organization or the wealthy president of that business. They want a reason to invest in the fighters and the fight cards. They want to be compelled to watch, not to be bullied into watching by someone telling them he doesn’t care if they tune in.
The way to get fans interested in watching is to give them something to invest in, to tie themselves to. An example of that would be Jim Miller on this weekend’s card. Miller is one of the longest-tenured athletes under the UFC banner. He’s a likable figure, the type of athlete you see more in hockey than in other sports. Miller brings a blue-collar mentality to the sport. His goal is to get the finish at all costs, and through that approach, he has set a list of UFC records. Miller is precisely the type of fighter the UFC should promote to its fans and other fighters. He’s the ideal UFC fighter.
Will the UFC promote or tell Miller’s story ahead of the event? It’s doubtful.
The ESPN deal, and UFC event quota
In 2018, the UFC and ESPN announced they had struck a deal that, according to reporting, was worth $1.5 billion. The agreement between the two entities called for ESPN to broadcast 30 UFC events on the ESPN family of networks over five years. Additionally, ESPN would carry the prelims for 12 ESPN+ streaming pay-per-view events. ESPN and the UFC later extended their agreement for two additional years.
From the outside looking in, that amount of guaranteed cash has reduced the UFC’s drive to deliver fight cards fans look forward to. With the ESPN money secure, as long as the promotion lives up to the terms of the deal, the focus appears to be delivering the quantity of fight cards ESPN demands over quality.
Does the UFC care?
If Maynard, and other UFC brass, care about the future of the promotion, they should listen to the rumblings of fan and media dissatisfaction and not dismiss it without a thought. Because if fans are not happy with the product, the bottom line will suffer, and with that, the stockholders will suffer, and once that happens, change won’t be an option, it will come with force.
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