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Caplan: Has the WEC’s time come and gone?

Regular readers of my work on this site and know that I’ve had a love affair with the WEC since it debuted on the VERSUS network.

The shows are well-paced, filled with action, and feature myriad rising stars. As far as an MMA promotion goes, it doesn’t get more exciting than the WEC.

However, the promotion’s recent decision to discontinue its welterweight division on the heels of its move late last year to disband its light heavyweight and middleweight divisions is a sign to me that the promotion’s concept has become obsolete. If the WEC is only going to feature weight classes not carried by the UFC, why not just transfer those weight classes to the UFC?

After the WEC was acquired by Zuffa, the reason why the company decided to maintain the promotion as a stand alone brand was so that it could try and block EliteXC from getting potential deals with HBO, VERSUS, and SHOWTIME.

HBO’s interest in MMA was only cursory and SHOWTIME cut a deal with ProElite instead of Zuffa after the premium cable network became upset that Zuffa yanked a UFC deal off the table and instead tried to push the WEC.

With HBO and SHOWTIME off the table, Zuffa cut a deal with VERSUS, a struggling, upstart basic cable sports channel owned and operated by Comcast. With VERSUS desperate for programming, marriage between the WEC and VERSUS has been solid.

However, if Zuffa’s primary object in funding the WEC was to hinder its competition, Zuffa learned the hard way after EliteXC ended up on CBS that you can only block so many deals. When one company folds, another one rises in its ashes. Case and point: ESPN is putting its toe into the shallow end of the MMA pool with the planned launch of the Bellator Fighting Championships in April.

The creation of Bellator is another in a long line of examples of how running a promotion just to stop other groups from launching is a flawed strategy. That’s because even in a soft economy the demand for MMA by television networks will always be greater than Zuffa’s ability to supply. The bottom line is that a network can never have too much inexpensive programming that appeals to males between the ages 18-34.

Unable to prevent new companies from launching, Zuffa’s only motivation for operating the WEC should be to make money. Publicly, the company has said that the WEC is profitable but if it truly is, the profit is only marginal — at best. The WEC is promoting more and more shows outside of the tiny “Joint” at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas and doing bigger houses in markets such as San Diego, Sacramento, Albuquerque, and South Florida.

But while gate revenue is up but pay-per-view revenue is non-existent. The WEC no doubt receives solid revenue from sponsors such as Bud Lite and also generates income through its deal with VERSUS. However, everything comes back to pay-per-view. There is no bigger revenue driver than PPV and while the WEC is a hardcore fan’s dream it doesn’t have the widespread appeal needed to draw major buys on PPV.

Personally, I’d be more than willing to pay $34.95 if it means I could get a chance to watch all 9-10 bouts on a WEC show in a commercial free package. I’m sure many readers of this site feel the same way but we’re in the minority. The bottom line is that Joe Casual Fan isn’t likely to buy a WEC PPV when he is unfamiliar with the vast majority of their fighter roster.

Aside from Miguel Torres and Urijah Faber, the WEC doesn’t have any legitimate draws. And without a reality television vehicle such as The Ultimate Fighter or the benefit of a television partner as strong as Spike TV, the promotion’s ability of building mainstream stars is severely hindered.

The strength of VERSUS, or lack thereof, is an issue that could also be too much to overcome. If you talk to the WEC they will tell you that the channel is backed by cable leader Comcast and available in over 85 million homes. That is indeed correct. However, many cable and satellite providers place VERSUS on a premium sports tier and the channel is not anywhere near as accessible as Spike. Not to mention, just how many people who have VERSUS available to them actually take the time to watch it?

VERSUS remains a lowly rated network that has not succeeded in developing new properties that will allow it to experience an exponential increase in ratings. And as such, the WEC is suffering as a result. One look at a WEC ratings growth chart on Bloody Elbow shows limited growth.

The first fight between Faber and Jens Pulver at WEC 34 on June 1 was promoted brilliantly and did a tremendous rating. However, when the WEC returned in August without Faber, the ratings went from 1.540 million viewers to just 423,000 viewers for WEC 35. And the last three WECs have only shown a small amount of growth, from 497,000 viewers for WEC 36; to 671,000 viewers for WEC 37; to 700,000 viewers for WEC 38. Some growth is better than no growth but keep in mind that WECs 36 and 38 both featured Faber.

The manner in which VERSUS is promoting the WEC also isn’t conducive to building new stars. While the quick pace of the shows is something that I am very appreciative of, only allowing main eventers to have entrances isn’t going to help up-and-comers like Jose Aldo and Wagnney Fabiano standout and gain name recognition. While I love the fact that the WEC is almost all about the fights the question is whether that’s good for long-term business? Many of MMA’s new generation of fans are converted wrestling fans and have been conditioned to believe that if a combatant doesn’t warrant an entrance, he must not be worth emotionally investing in.

VERSUS’ handling of WEC 38 also did the promotion no favors. Instead of giving the card a direct lead-in following the NHL All-Star game, the network inexplicably decided to sandwich an episode of the half-hour highlight program “Sports Soup” between the two live events. The end result was an uncertain start time that couldn’t have helped ratings.

As I’ve written before, the WEC needs a stronger television partner than VERSUS. The promotion’s model would be a perfect fit for ESPN but Bellator likely has the inside track at being the first MMA event televised on ESPN or ESPN2 based on its deal with Deportes.

Zuffa doesn’t like to do anything small so how long will it remain satisfied with the modest growth being generated by the WEC? Before you accuse me of committing blasphemy, I am not suggesting that Zuffa abandon the featherweight and bantamweight classes. Quite the contrary, as I believe fighters such as Faber, Torres, Aldo, Fabiano, Brian Bowles, Leonard Garcia, Jeff Curran, Mike Brown, and a host of others have proven that 135 and 145 are perhaps the two most exciting weight divisions in the sport.

I believe that fighters such as Faber and Torres deserve the opportunity to be featured on PPV and given the chance to earn higher paydays. With the UFC promoting more and more shows it could easily accommodate the addition of two new divisions. And I can’t help but wonder how much more the bantamweight and featherweight divisions would grow if the UFC adopted them. Certain fighters currently in the UFC lightweight division would no doubt likely be more open to dropping down since it wouldn’t no longer mean dropping out of the organization.

As great as the WEC has been, I think it’s a concept whose time has passed. It’s time for the UFC to usher in the bantamweight and featherweight movement and put their full promotional muscle behind it. As the WEC eliminates more and more weight classes, I get the feeling that Zuffa is already moving in that direction.

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