- PLEASE ZUFFA, DON’T HURT ‘EM

April 4, 2007
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Editorial by Rami Genauer, MMAWeekly.com
Compared to all the ridiculous titles that fight organizations have used to label their events (“Oktoberfist,” “Gunfather,” need I go on?) one has to give credit to whomever chose the moniker picked for Pride 34. There is no more appropriate name than “Kamikaze” for the last show before Dream Stage Entertainment goes willingly to its death.

With that death comes a host of questions, as a Fertitta-controlled entity called Pride FC Worldwide Holdings (PFC for short) takes over the reins in running Pride Fighting Championship. It’s too early to tell how the organization will be run, but there are dozens of choices that need to be made in determining the future of the promotion. As a fan of Pride as it was and with an eye to what it should be, I humbly submit these pleas to the powers that be.

PLEASE DON’T GO BACK TO THE REALITY SHOW WELL

Zuffa came up with a winning strategy for gaining fans via the television: Use a reality show to get your foot in the door (The Ultimate Fighter), broadcast live fights to hook people on your product (Ultimate Fight Night), show older fights to educate, build fan bandwagons and whet the appetite in between pay-per-views (UFC Unleashed), and eventually you’ll get to a point where fans will gladly watch your programming, even if it doesn’t include any fights at all (Inside the UFC, All Access, etc.).

In formulating their own TV strategy, Pride decided to skip steps one and two and go directly to step three, with its recorded fight show on Fox Sports Net. Obviously, this hasn’t worked too well for them. It must be mighty tempting for the Fertittas to try the same formula again; find a channel desperate for young, male eyeballs (G4, Versus, MTV2, FX are all usual suspects) and do a Pride reality show to start the process all over again. Indeed, before Pride’s sale, there were rumblings of DSE considering trying their hand at the reality show format.

This would be a really bad idea. In the first case, ratings for The Ultimate Fighter have declined to the point where new episodes draw about the same ratings as repeats of Unleashed. Fan interest in the reality format has waned and foisting another iteration of this tired genre onto an unfamiliar public is a poor way to build brand value. Remember, Pride’s brand needs to be established essentially from scratch. It is not the hardcore fans that need convincing, it’s the people that still refer to MMA as “ultimate fighting.” Pride must be built to the point where the casual fan base sees it as an equal to the UFC; the Fertittas did not pay a rumored $65 million just to get another minor player like the WEC.

Producing another reality show would likely not have the same effect that The Ultimate Fighter initially did, as it is far from novel. In addition, the limitations of the reality genre would necessarily restrain the show from promoting Pride’s true strength: International talent. The “throw a bunch of people in a house” format only works when everyone speaks the same language. Fans would be unlikely to form an emotional connection with the foreign fighters, as charisma, humor and personality are the hardest things to glean via subtitle. It’s no coincidence that the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film almost always goes to a depressing drama. Pride needs a significant presence on free television, but will need to arrive in a format that’s a little more creative this time around.

PLEASE DO NOT TAKE LIBERTIES WITH EACH ORGANIZATION’S HISTORY

This merger is such a big deal because of how fiercely fans of each organization took their “rivalry” in the past. The Fertittas might be tempted to downplay fights that reflect poorly on one organization or the other, lest fans come to the conclusion that Pride was better all along, or conversely, that the UFC is so superior that Pride is not worth paying any heed. So while it may not look good for the UFC to have fans see Anderson Silva, its unimpeachable middleweight champ, lose to gatekeeper Ryo Chonan, that flying-scissor takedown-heel hook was incredible. Fans need to see that fight just the same as they need to see Pride poster boy Takanori Gomi get beaten by UFC cast-off Nick Diaz by gogoplata. Probably the most valuable thing the Fertittas acquired was Pride’s library of past fights. It would be a shame to devalue a chunk of that investment because of unnecessary brand protectionism.

PFC will hopefully go a smarter route in choosing how to broadcast old Pride fights, once they get a television contract. The selection of fights on the FSN shows was always questionable and the decision to cut away from the action in the ring to show crowd shots was inexcusable. While controversial, Zuffa made the right decision in insisting on the Unified Rules (to do otherwise would have been hypocritical on the issue of fighter safety), but that shouldn’t stop them from showing matches with soccer kicks, knees on the ground, and stomps. If Dana White and Marc Ratner are serious about trying to get athletic commissions to approve knees on the ground, the best way to do it is to create an atmosphere where fans are not only comfortable with these rules, but actually come to prefer them. That pressure from the bottom-up will be far more effective than any top-down lobbying Zuffa can attempt.

And while the wound is still a little raw, please don’t forget about Kazushi Sakuraba. He may have defected to K-1, but he was the true embodiment of Pride for many years. New fans need to see Sakuraba’s fights if they want to gain an appreciation for Pride.

PLEASE DON’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE PRIDE MADE IN AMERICA

With its American debut in October 2005, DSE made the mistake of trying to directly translate its Japanese Pride show into an American product, ignoring what American fans actually want. PFC must make sure not to make the same mistake, turning Pride into an Asia-based version of UFC and WEC shows. Japanese fans are already (rightfully) suspicious of the American buyers due to their insistence on adhering to the Unified Rules and modification of the weight class structure. The last thing the Fertittas need is to alienate Pride’s existent fan base, creating a two front battle for legitimacy. I’m sure they won’t be so dumb as to replace Pride’s theme with agro nu-metal or fail to resign Hidehiko Yoshida, but its imperative they keep the things that make Pride Japanese. So let the woman announcer keep shrieking the names and let’s make that Zuluzinho vs. Giant Silva super heavyweight bout a reality. You may lose a fan or two stateside, but you’ll keep more of the Japanese fans that should remain Pride’s bread and butter.

PLEASE DON’T SACRIFICE LONG-TERM GROWTH FOR SHORT-TERM GAINS

The worry here is not of monopoly. Should Zuffa or PFC decide to raise ticket and pay-per-view prices, there are enough other MMA organizations to keep any fan satisfied. Besides, MMA as a whole is simply a component of the larger competition for your entertainment dollar. The money that new fans are allocating toward MMA pay-per-views is almost certainly coming at the expense of movies, music or other sporting events. Few fans choose MMA over food or housing. There is a limit to what the market will bear in terms of MMA pricing because of that larger competition.

The true worry is the opposite of monopoly – monopsony. A monopoly is when there are a lot of buyers, but only one seller, who can raise prices as he sees fit. A monopsony is when there are a lot of sellers, but only one buyer, who can underpay by playing suppliers against each other.

BodogFight proved the point that a motivated promoter with enough money can get the top fighter in the world. But could any promoter afford the top 50 fighters in the world? Once the merger is completed, 45 of the top 50 fighters in the world (as ranked by MMAWeekly) will be under a Fertitta-controlled contract. Other promotions can certainly poach a fighter here and there, but no one can afford the top-tier stable of fighters that the Brothers Fertitta can. This gives them tremendous bargaining leverage when signing contracts with fighters. If they wanted, they could artificially depress fighter pay so as to maximize their own bottom line.

Of all the possible mistakes, this would be the biggest one. Counterintuitive as it may seem, fighter paydays must grow steadily for MMA to reach its peak profitability in the long run. More money attracts better talent – it’s as simple as that. The better the talent competing in a given sport, the more people will pay attention and the greater the potential payday. Remember, the NFL is the most profitable sports league on the planet and doesn’t run a single pay-per-view.

The ultimate goal is not to get elite college wrestlers or amateur boxers to start training in MMA. By the time they’re wrestlers or boxers, it’s already too late. The true goal is to get that athletically gifted teenager, the one who right now is most likely choosing football, basketball or other sports, to see MMA as a viable option. Only then will you see the highest athletic talent taking the longest time to train in the greatest number of disciplines. MMA is well on its way to reaching that point, but it will take time, continued exposure and a whole lot more money before the sport truly arrives. Let’s hope that the Pride acquisition is a step in the right direction.

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