(On second thought, make that seven things. Photo via With Leather.)
By Seth Falvo
On paper, my timing couldn’t possibly be worse. Aside from the fact that there are dozens of “What the UFC can learn from the WWE” articles on the Internet, last week’s edition of Monday Night Raw – the company’s flagship television program – brought some of its worst viewership numbers of the past fifteen years. With this week’s edition competing against a Monday Night Football game between two teams still in playoff contention for the casual fans, it’s doubtful that those numbers improved by much.
So then why am I writing yet another article about what a company that sells choreographed “fights” experiencing some of its lowest viewership numbers can teach the UFC? Because the WWE’s idea of “terrible numbers” involves only averaging 3.53 million viewers. To put that into perspective, the TUF 18 Finale main card drew 1.129 million viewers. That’s right, the WWE is in panic mode because their weekly Monday night show only attracted three times as many viewers as a UFC event.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that the UFC resort to ridiculous storylines, assigning character gimmicks to fighters, forcing celebrity guests into shows, forming an ill-advised partnership with a dying pro-wrestling promotion, or any of the other things that would make most MMA fans roll their eyes. Nor am I going to ignorantly blame the UFC for less than spectacular fights, controversial finishes, and other things that a legitimate sports league cannot possibly be expected to control. On the contrary, my first suggestion is something that the UFC actually used to do better than the WWE…
Put Over Your Talent Instead of Expecting it to Just Happen
There was a time not too long ago when I would have told you with a straight face that the UFC was better at creating stars out of its roster than the WWE could ever dream of being, simply because they could turn even the most boring personalities like Georges St. Pierre and Matt Hughes into intriguing fighters. Yet these days, I honestly wouldn’t be able to pick Hyun Gyu Lim out of a line-up, despite the facts that he holds two brutal knockout victories in the organization and is about to headline an upcoming card. The UFC’s new formula for getting fans to invest themselves into a fighter is basically “let’s hope everyone magically decides to follow a winning fighter’s career,” despite how poorly that strategy has been working.
No matter how hard we try to pretend we’re above valuing emotional investment in a fighter’s personality over said fighter’s actual accomplishments, the numbers that Jon Jones, Renan Barao, Benson Henderson and Demetrious Johnson bring in don’t lie; you can’t just say “these guys are good fighters” and expect most fans to care. I’m in no way suggesting that the gimmicks that Vince McMahon uses to promote his wrestlers should be used by an MMA organization, but is it too much to ask for a little more than “these two are about to fight, try to remember who wins three months from now”? Get back to demonstrating why fans should be so excited about a debuting fighter, and give them a few details about his/her life outside of the cage that they might find interesting. If the UFC gets back to treating the new athletes like people the fans should care about, then who knows, maybe the fans will react accordingly.
Establish An Official Minor League
The UFC faces an interesting dilemma: On one hand, they’re supposed to be the premier MMA organization, reserved for only the absolute best fighters. On the other hand, they’re also expanding internationally, and need warm bodies to fill all of the upcoming fight cards, regardless of whether or not these fighters even have Wikipedia pages. So far, the solution to this problem has been to make Fight Night cards the proverbial “one-fight cards” that Dana White said he’d never promote, and viewership has tanked to the point where a strong-ish World Series of Fighting show can outdraw a UFC Fight Night.
So if UFC Fight Night cards are already essentially minor league cards, then why not give the program the full WWE NXT treatment and designate Fight Night as the promotion’s official minor league? It can be the UFC’s way to continue its international expansion while also giving the locals being signed to fill the cards some extra time to develop their skills, the same way that the WWE makes even respected indie veterans like El Generico and Samuray del Sol prove themselves in NXT before getting a shot on the WWE’s main programs.
Sure, Fight Night will continue to draw relatively weak ratings – the same way that TNA Impact! Wrestling can actually compete against NXT – but is it really worth weakening the drawing power of the UFC brand just to continue to pretend these Fight Night cards feature UFC caliber fighters? It wasn’t too long ago when all I needed to do to convince my friends that a fight card was worth caring about was tell them that it was a UFC event. Those days are long gone, and that’s largely due to how weak these Fight Night events have become.
Pull the Plug on The Ultimate Fighter
Give PPVs a Proper Build-Up
The biggest gripe that my professional wrestling friends have against watching the UFC is that there is never any logical correlation between events. One day, they’ll catch a commercial for a heavyweight fight, then the next day it’s flyweights, and then the next day they’re being asked to pay for a rematch between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman, with no explanation for how these fights are related except for the fact that they’re all UFC fights. Tempting as it may be to dismiss this as professional wrestling fanboy talk, all of them are NFL fans, because the season logically progresses to them: Sixteen games to determine which teams make the tournament for the championship, followed by said tournament and championship game.
What if the UFC instead booked shows so that the main events would have a clear featured weight class each month, with the monthly PPV featuring the title fight? Instead of booking Machida, Kennedy, and Belfort as the build-up for a fight between Georges St. Pierre and Johny Hendricks, why not book them as the build-up for Weidman vs. Silva II? Even the dimmest fans can then see how the free cards built up to the PPV: You’d have two free cards where Kennedy and Machida establish themselves in the middleweight division currently controlled by Chris Weidman – who will be defending his title on PPV against Anderson Silva, and it will be awesome – a free card featuring top middleweight Vitor Belfort keeping active while waiting for the Chris Weidman to defend his title on PPV against Anderson Silva, which will be awesome, and then the actual fight that pretty much everything that happened this month built up to.
Granted, injuries make this all but impossible to stick with, but when all goes according to plan, it’ll be easier to get the casual fans excited about dropping sixty bucks on a pay-per-view card. Of course…
One-Fight Cards – No Matter How Strong the Build-Up – Are Not Worth Paying For
I probably just launched one thousand “BUT THE FIGHTS ARE STILL GOOD JUST BECAUSE YOU DON’T KNOW WHO THE FIGHTERS ARE SO WHY DOES IT MATTER?!” rants in the comments section – as well as another “Don’t say it sucks until after the event” rant from Dana White – but there is no way I’m wasting both my money and my Saturday on a card featuring one fight that I care about.
As with anything else, if all I want is “good,” then I’ll gladly accept the cheaper alternative. If I only want to watch a “good” football game, I’ll buy tickets to The New Orleans Bowl instead of The New Orleans Saints. If all I want is “good” food, I’ll buy fast food instead of fine dining. And if all I want to watch are “good” fights, I’ll spend twenty bucks on tickets to a local amateur MMA event, where I’ll get plenty of “good” fights between guys I vaguely recognize from local gyms. Vince McMahon understands that he can’t charge money for Brock Lesnar vs. John Cena if his supporting cast is Zach Ryder, Tensai, The Brooklyn Brawler, and Dyn-O-mite, because there are enough “good” matches coming from indie wrestling organizations to give his viewers worthy alternatives. It’s time for the UFC to acknowledge that my second-best option no longer involves driving thirty miles to rent a bootlegged King of the Cage DVD that I’ve already seen four times.
Make Your Subscription Based Digital Networks Actually Worth Owning
So, can we talk about that hilarious “UFC Digital Network” for a minute? Because I’d like to formally ask if anyone on the planet is dumb enough to buy that thing. I’m not sure how much the UFC thinks I’m willing to pay for “Not even basic cable worthy” UFC cards, but anything over $0.00 is pushing the limits of reality for me.
And if you’re assuming that you’ll get UFC archive footage, keep in mind that you’re already supposed to be paying $5.99 per month to access that stuff on YouTube, you fake fight fan!
Al Bundy, your reaction please:
Ha ha, you sarcastic dick.
Now, let’s compare that to what the WWE is prepared to give its digital network subscribers for only ten to twelve bucks per month:
- Every single episode of Raw, Smackdown, and every pay-per-view the company ever recorded.
- Every future pay-per-view except for future Wrestlemania events.
- However, as a reward for purchasing a six month subscription, Wrestlemania 30 will be included as well.
There aren’t enough TUF outtakes, NSFW-ish ring girl videos, and Mean Gene Helwani interviews in existence to make the UFC network comparable to the WWE network, and the WWE network isn’t making you flip between two separate apps in order to access it.
Al Bundy, your reaction please:
If you’re going to charge money for a service, make sure you’re providing more than what I can already legally get for free from your rivals. Asking me to pay for the caliber of fighters I can easily find in Bellator and World Series of Fighting for free? Don’t care, not happening.
Coincidentally, it was at this point in the history of professional wrestling – once the novelty started wearing off and the casual fans lost interest – that promoters decided to drift away from legitimate competition. The UFC doesn’t have to follow directly in professional wrestling’s footsteps in order to learn from its history. Vince McMahon may promote an entirely different product, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to offer our sport.