The latest on UFC, K-1 Dynamite, WEC and the IFL
Posted: Monday June 4, 2007 4:30PM; Updated: Monday June 4, 2007 4:30PM
Every other week, SI.com's Todd Martin checks in with a MMA update.
In 2006, the Ultimate Fighting Championship established itself as a major force in sports and it's only grown to greater heights in '07. The sport of mixed martial arts is here to stay, with a host of popular stars and a rabid, affluent fan base. Yet, there is one conceivable obstacle to UFC's continued success, and it is one few people are talking about: oversaturation.
Oversaturation will not necessarily resonate with fans of baseball, hockey or basketball. Major League Baseball runs more events in one year than UFC will in 10. However, there is a key difference. Much of UFC's income comes from its pay-per-view buy rates. Hundreds of thousands of fans pay $40 to watch each event on pay-per-view television.
There is a different dynamic involved in convincing someone to watch something for free than in convincing them to pay for it. There has to be a hook that gets fans excited. Thus, the basic formula for pay-per-view success is making each show feel special. The more shows that an entity runs, the more difficult that task becomes.
One key advantage UFC has over boxing is its brand name. Not every event is equally marketable, but UFC is able to retain a sizeable PPV audience for every show simply because it is a UFC event. The perfect example was February's UFC 67. The headlining match was Anderson Silva vs. Travis Lutter, a fight that excited few fans. Still, the show sold 375,000 buys on pay-per-view and was hugely profitable. The UFC name has a lot to do with that. If UFC spaces out its PPV events carefully, there is no reason any UFC event should drop below that number for at least the next few years.
This brings us to June 16's UFC 72: Victory show, which has very little star power, and it is going to test how far the UFC name goes. Headlining the event is Rich Franklin vs. Yushin Okami. It is an interesting fight to insiders and hardcore fans, as it's a battle between top middleweight contenders. But the fight lacks sizzle for the casual audience. Franklin is a well-known star, but Okami's popularity and notoriety aren't equal to his skills.
There is also only one legitimate star on the undercard, Forrest Griffin, but he is coming off a devastating loss and is facing a largely unknown opponent in Hector Ramirez. It is going to be hard to sell large amounts of fans on this show, unless the recent media blitz has brought in a new batch who will buy it because of the brand name.
Assuming the show does a significantly lower buy rate, the question becomes whether that is a significant problem. It might very well prove to be. UFC has a fan base that orders each and every pay-per-view. Given the Silva-Lutter buy rate, that number might be as high as 350,000. UFC doesn't want that group to start picking and choosing between its shows. Once a percentage of that group doesn't order one show, ordering the next becomes an open question rather than a foregone conclusion.
That scenario presents no danger to the mega fights, which will continue to blow away business. However, the numbers for UFC's less marketable shows may begin to drop across the board. That's no guarantee, but it's a possibility. UFC is gambling the revenue they make from this show will offset that long-term risk. They may be right. UFC President Dana White has dismissed the notion oversaturation is a danger. He has argued instead that as long as the promotion produces good shows, fan support will be strong.
Running UFC 72 on pay-per-view was not the original plan. The card was originally intended for HBO, but UFC and HBO haven't been able to finalize an agreement. It was then marked for Spike TV, but Spike wanted to focus on promoting its upcoming Jens Pulver vs. B.J. Penn fight. That left UFC with the pay-per-view option, and UFC Victory may end up as an anomaly as far as the low level of star power.
Star power aside, UFC Victory is likely to be an entertaining show. Franklin vs. Okami and Griffin vs. Ramirez have the potential to be exciting fights. Even more promising is a lightweight battle between Tyson Griffin and Clay Guida, which should be a war. The show has the additional benefit of being the first UFC show in Ireland, and a raucous crowd is likely to add energy to the festivities.