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5 Oz. Feature: Breaking down the post-weekend MMA television landscape

five.jpg This past weekend was a crucial spot for the long-term growth of MMA and the sport delivered with flying colors. Not only did EliteXC peak at 6.51 million viewers during Saturday’s debut of “Saturday Night Fights” on CBS, but the WEC double its highest-ever rating on VERSUS.

The success of MMA on broadcast and cable television is only going to make networks more bullish on the product. Television is not an industry ripe with new ideas; once a concept is successful, everyone tries to knock it off. When NBC had “ER,” CBS had a similar emergency room drama in “Chicago Hope.” The “Law and Order” franchise has spawned numerous crime dramas, so much so that even NBC has knocked off its own show with multiple spinoffs. When NBC hit it big with “Friends,” ABC tried to launch a blatant knockff called “Townies” with Molly Ringwald in the lead role. I could go on and on. Mixed martial arts will prove to be no different. The idea of bringing viewers and new advertisers to the ratings wasteland of Saturday night will be too enticing to resist.

If you’re a fan of free MMA then you should be very happy now. Based on the ratings results this past weekend, we’re going to see more MMA on network television and basic cable. But which networks are going to follow CBS’ lead and which promotions will be involved? While we’ll have to wait for definitive answers, I decided to break down the field and take a look at how this past weekend affected the major promotions.

EliteXC - Saturday night was make or break for the promotion. And while Kimbo Slice’s mystique is not what it was going into the show, the silver lining is that his fight peaked at 6.51 million viewers. If he had knocked out James Thompson in round 1 and didn’t draw any kind of rating, it wouldn’t have mattered because EliteXC would have been dropped by CBS and that would have been the beginning of the end for every major promotion on network TV.

The strong rating means that EliteXC is guaranteed to get a second show and the rating might be good enough to make a third show a certainty as well. A lot of people at CBS must feel validated by their decision to take the leap to broadcast MMA in primetime and those visionaries most likely will have a lot more leverage when it comes to getting things done. We could see an even stronger marketing push by CBS for the second show and even more network resources devoted to the telecast.

The typical hardcore fan hated Saturday’s show. But Roone Arledge, one of the pioneers behind football on primetime TV, said that when they created “Monday Night Football” that they essentially said: Screw the fan, he’s going to watch anyway. How can we get people who aren’t fans to watch? We can sit here and bash the show all we want, but the proof is in the pudding. Not only was Saturday’s show the most-watched MMA event of all-time in North America, but the half-hour ratings increased at every turn. The show never went down in total viewers. Those that are complaining about the lack of fighting at the start of the show have a valid point. However, the show wasn’t geared towards us. It was geared to first-time viewers and after watching the show last night, it’s obvious they wanted to educate the newcomers. I don’t think non-fans had an issue with how the show started because the rating only grew. And the reality is that a lot of the same people that are proclaiming Saturday’s show the “worst thing to happen to MMA” will tune in again for the second show. Why? Because it’s MMA and it’s free.

A lot of people at CBS probably feel pretty vindicated and that kind of ratings pattern means that for better or worse, we’re going to see the same formula for the second show. Sure, we’ll see some tweaks, but I don’t see CBS going out and trying to re-invent the wheel. And really, why should they? You can’t mess with success. That being said, when you look at EliteXC as a fight promotion, there are still long-term questions that have to be answered. First, were first-time MMA viewers that tuned in to see what the Kimbo hype was about turned off? Will those viewers come back for a second helping?

Second, EliteXC is way too dependent on Kimbo. I would go so far as to say there’s a co-dependency issue there. I didn’t see it because my eyes were focused on the fight, but I talked to a number of reporters who gave me vivid descriptions of Jared Shaw shouting at Dan Miragliotta to stand the fight up in the second round. Shaw isn’t some random fan; he’s a V.P. with the company. I don’t think for a second that Shaw could influence Miragliotta, but it still sends a bad image. I also couldn’t help but notice that Shaw was the first guy running into the cage to congratulate Kimbo after the fight was stopped. It’s just a simple fact: promoters are going to favor their biggest money makers, but what I saw on Saturday was transparent and blatant and not good for the sport. That kind of favortism from promoters hurt boxing so why have that element in MMA? The fighters are great people and it’s easy to become friends with them. And if you ever meet Kimbo in person, it’s easy to see why people would want to get behind the man. That said, wait until you see him in the locker room to congratulate him. Dana White makes it no secret that he’s friends with Chuck Liddell, but he’s not yelling at the officials during his fights.

But is it any surprise the company breathed a collective sigh of relief when Kimbo won? If Kimbo loses or gets hurt and can’t fight for awhile, the company is in serious trouble. Slice is being put in a bad spot because he’s essentially being asked to carry the company while he’s still trying to grow as a fighter. There were a ton of media requests asked of him and he answered all the calls. But he shouldn’t put in a position where he has to carry a show by himself again. Frank Shamrock was good on commentary on Saturday but it’s time to get the headset off him in favor of a pair of four ounce gloves. However, Shamrock’s involvement as a fighter alone isn’t enough. They need more headliners. The massive network exposure could help EliteXC create those headliners, but that won’t happen overnight and they need immediate help. Getting Eddie Alvarez on the second show and capitalizing on his success in DREAM should also be a priority.

The third question is whether EliteXC can leverage this success into a major raise of financing? Right now the company is $31 million in the hole and underfunded. It’s obvious now that the company made ill-advised decisions to invest in so many smaller promotions. The money spent on ICON Sport, Cage Rage, Spirit MC, and King of the Cage would have been spent on a couple of big-time free agents such as Tito Ortiz, Andrei Arlovski, Josh Barnett, Ben Rothwell, etc. Not to mention, if they had more cash reserves they’d be in a position to buy select assets from the IFL and possibly acquire the contracts of Chris Horodecki, Roy Nelson, Wagnney Fabiano, Jay Hieron, and Vladimir Matyushenko. None of the five aforementioned fighters are major stars, but they’d provide much-needed depth in several key divisions for the promotion. It’s too late to get Arlovski, Barnett, and Rothwell. However, if they can get some new investors to come aboard, they could be in a position to do whatever it takes to land Ortiz and be in a position to spend money whenever a major fighter’s current contract expires.

In regards to the first question, new fans no doubt had to have been turned off to the point that they can’t build a card solely around Kimbo’s next fight. But while what happened with Kimbo on Saturday was a major setback, it wasn’t catastrophic. A headline fighter is as good as his last fight. If Kimbo can redeem himself in his next fight with an early knockout, he will regain a lot of momentum.

As far as question two, putting Kimbo in a co-main event on a show headlined by Frank Shamrock would be a very good idea. But like I said, Shamrock alone isn’t enough. They need another marquee name. Ortiz is the obvious answer but EliteXC isn’t the only company with interest. Are they willing to overspend for a guy whose better days are behind him?

Finally, the ratings from Saturday will most certainly allow EliteXC to go out and get additional funding. But will it be enough? If the company isn’t on pay-per-view, where is the revenue going to come from? Not enough cash is flowing from their current revenue streams. My prediction is that a year from now that ProElite will be out of the MMA business and SHOWTIME and CBS will be the primary owners of EliteXC.

The UFC - Zuffa wanted EliteXC on CBS to fail and that didn’t happen. What they need to realize is that the numbers EliteXC pulled on Saturday helps the UFC’s long-term business prospects. Rooting against Saturday’s show made little sense because had the show bombed Saturday, networks wouldn’t be very eager to make a play for primetime MMA. Instead of bashing EliteXC on ESPN SportsCenter, Dana White should have labeled it a solid debut but reminded everyone that the UFC is the market leader and that they can put on an even better show.

As things stand now, a lot of MMA companies are sitting pretty right now, but none prettier than the UFC. Saturday Night Fights didn’t pull the highest ever rating for an MMA telecast, but it is the most-watched MMA telecast in North American history. The over-thinkers at the networks are sitting around in their ivory towers trying to figure out how to counter CBS’ latest primetime move. Someone at the table is going to point out that EliteXC is not the industry leader and someone else is going to say, “Well, then why the hell don’t we have a deal with the industry leader?”

FOX has shown an interest in MMA and has been linked to the UFC. A deal was never consummated but things change. FOX will likely feel a greater sense of urgency to make a move while the UFC now has more leverage. If Kimbo Slice vs. James Thompson can peak at 6.51 million viewers, what kind of rating would a main event featuring Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva garner? Eight million viewers? Nine million viewers? Ten?

One obstacle for the UFC in doing a deal with a network other than Spike has been creative control. The UFC is smart for being unwilling to put blind trust into a network. But if they want to grow their business, they are going to have to change their philosophy somewhat. Zuffa will have to reach a compromise and give the networks a certain amount of control. Based on the success EliteXC had on Saturday, I believe Zuffa might be willing to re-evaluate a lot of things because they are no doubt feeling a sense of urgency as well. Simply put, the UFC has to get on network television if it wants to retain its lead over the competition.

Strikeforce - A lot of people knocked Strikeforce’s deal with NBC when it was first announced because it was a time buy and because the timeslot wasn’t great. But they’re pulling a solid rating and EliteXC’s strong numbers on CBS could prompt NBC to re-evaluate its current programming strategy regarding MMA. So who’s laughing now? If NBC decides to take a bigger leap into the sport, guess what promotion is in the driver’s seat?

According to sources, NBC has explored the idea of moving Strikeforce to a weekend afternoon timeslot and is considering a quarterly live special. It’s also included in their contract with Strikeforce that they can become a pay-per-view partner with the promotion. All of this was before EliteXC pulled a 3.0. You do the math.

The IFL - We all know that the IFL is on life support, but the ratings news could create new life for them. The IFL has good fighters on its roster: Chris Horodecki, Wagnney Fabiano, Roy Nelson, Vladimir Matyushenko, Jay Hieron, Deividas Taurosevicius, Jim and Dan Miller, Benj Radach, Matt Horwich, and a couple of other names I’ve left out. The downside is that they don’t have any major stars right now. The upside is that the IFL can offer something that the UFC can’t: equity. The real reason why CBS and the UFC couldn’t come to a deal is not because of creative control, but because CBS wanted partial ownership.

With the other networks privy to the details of CBS’ deal with EliteXC, it only makes sense for them to want ownership as well. If FOX decides to get in the MMA business and also decides they want a piece of the company, the UFC might not want to play ball. But we know the IFL is not only open to the idea of taking on a major media partner as a part-owner, they welcome it.

The IFL already has an existing relationship with FOX, as MyNetworkTV is owned by FOX and of course, the IFL has its weekly Saturday night timeslot on Fox Sports Net. The promotion is hurt by the fact that it doesn’t have any starpower, but the right infusion of cash could help remedy that problem.

The WEC - EliteXC is taking a page out of the PRIDE playbook and going with the larger-than-life entertainment approach. I think that’s a good way to go. The hardcores didn’t care much for Saturday’s telecast but what they saw Saturday wasn’t geared towards them. If CBS and EliteXC only drew the hardcores for Saturday’s show, we’d be talking about one of the biggest ratings bombs in the history of television right now. But CBS and EliteXC designed a broadcast that would not only appeal to casual fans, but most importantly, to the non-fan. It remains to be seen if the approach will work long-term, but as far as the short-term is concerned, you can’t argue with the numbers.

But EliteXC’s approach is just one way to present MMA. Another way to present it is going the pure sport route that the WEC has chosen. I think the WEC could really work on national television. While the networks are intrigued by MMA, the sports divisions at the networks want no part in it. EliteXC and Strikeforce are not affiliated with with the sports divisions at CBS and NBC, but are a presentation of the entertainment division. However, if someone like Ed Goren sat down and watched the WEC, it might change his opinion of MMA. And how could a sports czar at a network watch Miguel Torres vs. Yoshiro Maeda and Urijah Faber vs. Jens Pulver and not get behind it?

Think about it; ABC is owned by Disney but apparently has some interest in MMA. The WEC is the most tasteful MMA product out there right now. So why doesn’t ABC look into doing a live WEC special every 3-4 months on Saturday or Sunday afternoons (when football isn’t in season) and also show a WrekCage style show on ESPN or ESPN II each week?

And I don’t want to hear that the WEC doesn’t have enough star power because neither did EliteXC and look at what they did? Yes, Kimbo Slice has a pretty strong fanbase, but a lot of people that tuned in Saturday had never seen him fight before. They tuned in because of the deluge of media promotion that Kimbo received. Kimbo looked the part of a star so a lot of non-fans that were exposed to him through ESPN the Magazine, E:60, radio interviews, etc., believed he was someone they should have already known about. Aside from the fact that he’s 145 pounds, Urijah Faber also looks and acts the part of the star. If you put him in front of enough people, his fanbase will only grow. The same goes for Brian Stann. You expose him to a big enough audience and he’ll definitely become a star.

But the WEC on network TV is thinking big. Thinking more immediate, the WEC’s stock almost certainly has increased in the eyes of VERSUS after pulling a 1.4 on Sunday night when they would have been satisfied with a 1.0. VERSUS is trying to grow its brand and it needs as many ways possible to bring eyeballs to its station. Right now the WEC is only doing live shows every 2-3 months but you better believe there will be a push to do monthly shows. The WEC doesn’t have the depth right now to go monthly, but it’s the kind of problem that can be easily fixed with money.

Affliction – Affliction is going to go with the pay-per-view model but the question is how can they get the word out about what is an awesome lineup? They don’t have a weekly TV presence like the UFC does with Spike and they don’t have corporate resources to draw from like EliteXC has with CBS. A major marketing push that sells fights and fighters with no context isn’t enough. We learned from BodogFIGHT with Fedor vs. Matt Lindland last April and again this year with YAMMA Pit Fighting. Putting Fedor’s face on a poster isn’t enough, the masses need to know who he is and why they should care.

Affliction still is in a good spot. If a network that wants MMA but doesn’t want to deal with Dana White yet still wants star power, then Affliction is the only other option. FSN will be televising three undercard bouts before Affliction goes live on pay-per-view, so they already have a foot in the door. FOX should look into a one-hour special a few weeks after the pay-per-view where the Fedor vs. Sylvia, Barnett vs. Rizzo, and Rothwell vs. TBA fights are shown. If FOX commits to the UFC, then Affliction should target ESPN and HBO as partners if the first show comes off successfully.

Another option Affliction should look into was the “Fighting Fedor” promo that was leaked several months back. Trying to get involved with M-1 as a producer behind the show and securing strong distribution in North America would be a great way to market Fedor as a pay-per-view draw.