There was much rejoicing in the insular MMA community when it was finally announced that Scott Coker and Strikeforce would be taking over the coveted CBS and Showtime television contracts from the (nearly) defunct ProElite.
Not only did Coker gain control of the sport’s first network television time slot, he also took control of EliteXC’s top fighters like Robbie Lawler, Jake Shields, Gina Carano, and even the infamous Kimbo Slice.
Fans and the MMA blogging community were quick to proclaim the revamped Strikeforce was a potential UFC killer, the first real North American competition of the eight year Zuffa reign.
Not so fast-Coker and Strikeforce still have a lot to prove.
It’s true that Strikeforce is one of the only other promoters outside of the Zuffa umbrella in the black. In an era that has seen the IFL, BoDog, and ProElite drop tens of millions of dollars in an effort to compete with the UFC, this is an accomplishment in itself. Strikeforce has gotten by with smarts and moxie and a team with decades of promotional experience in both kickboxing and MMA. And by being conservative when others have been bold.
However, right now, Strikeforce is a regional promotion. They essentially run one town, San Jose, while branching out into other parts of California and the pacific northwest with limited success.
Strikeforce cards are usually based around a single strong main event. The bulk of the card is an afterthought, the occasional national name mixed in with a hodge podge collection of local fighters and instructors. This approach can work well when your main source of income is the gate, because a local star like Cung Le or Frank Shamrock can attract a huge crowd in their home base.
But it remains to be seen how well it will translate into national television. Unfortunately for Coker and Strikeforce, MMA fans have been spoiled, not just by the great cards UFC routinely puts out on television and PPV, and by the largess of promotions like Affliction and EliteXC.
A major league MMA card in 2009 is expected to be packed to the brim with recognizable stars and compelling matchups. Putting on a card that attracts national attention is, frankly, expensive. Perhaps prohibitively so for the amount Showtime and CBS are willing to pay.
Coker and Strikeforce have stayed afloat for years with the exact opposite instincts: to play it safe, look for the base hit, never taking the kind of risks that can result in a homerun. That approach isn’t going to work on CBS, where the demand for a ratings bonanza requires more than a local star and a big gate.
Strikeforce needs to be prepared to swing for the fences. The talent is out there to make it happen — I just hope they have the will.