Zuffa to learn if fans' wallets will open for WEC on pay-per-view
The WEC event on Saturday is the promotion's first card on pay-per-view
Whether fans care about the Ben Henderson-Donald Cerrone rematch is one key
UFC is showing commitment by tabbing Dana While, Joe Rogan to drum up interest
Urijah Faber, not so much the kid he once was, has always desired comparisons to the similarly sized Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Until late 2008, the former WEC featherweight champion could have made a point, though not a very compelling one, about his dominance against the opposition. As far as the exhilaration of knowing how many zeros can fit on a deposit slip, you've never seen such a mismatch. And selling pay-per-views? It's almost inappropriate to ponder.
As "Money" Mayweather gears up for another eight-figure payday on May 1 against Shane Mosley, Faber, the face of MMA's 145-pound division, even after losses in two of his last four bouts, expects to receive the biggest check of his career Saturday. If his prize happens to triple previous paydays, Faber, the highest-paid fighter in the WEC since Zuffa purchased the company in 2006 and the driving force behind Saturday's card in his hometown of Sacramento, Calif., will officially earn just more than $150,000.
Admittedly, that figure is misleading. There's no way really to know how much he made or by what magnitude it increased.
Based on how Zuffa pays out, what mixed martial artists publicly make and what they actually receive can be two entirely different figures. Questions abound as to just how much Zuffa-signed fighters take home because guaranteed salaries (regularly divided into show and win purses) often pale in comparison (and by design) to "discretionary bonuses" -- the infamous "shower room" payment mentioned by Randy Couture in 2007 -- handed out by Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta.
"Basically, the way the company works is you help make them money, and they take care of you," said Faber (23-3), who will challenge current featherweight champion Jose Aldo (16-1) on pay-per-view from Arco Arena in Sacramento. "No guarantees on how things will go. Being champion again is always very lucrative, not just in the fight world but all the endorsements on top of it. It's a great place to be. I have faith that if we help Zuffa make a ton of cash, they'll share a little bit of that."
Zuffa is betting that the time is right to see what kind of numbers WEC, the sister promotion to UFC featuring fighters from 135 to 155 pounds, generates on pay-per-view, a platform the Las Vegas-based promotional company has mastered over the past four years.
"You build a fan base on television. You get these guys some exposure. People know 'em and then you make the leap to pay-per-view and hopefully it works out," White said Wednesday during a conference call to promote WEC 48 (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT). "I believe we've done all the right things up to this point to take a stacked card like this with a great main event and co-main event, put it on pay-per-view and take this thing to the next level."
An interesting experiment to be sure, one that has produced generally poor results for promotions branded anything other than "UFC."
For Zuffa, Saturday brings several unknowns into play.
How will fans accustomed to watching Faber and Aldo for free react to being charged $45 -- $55 if you want to catch it in HD -- for a product that doesn't appear all that different from what they can watch on Versus?
White's the anti-Willy Loman. But even for a carnival barker of his caliber, persuading people to buy something they never had to before -- especially in a down economy -- could go over about as well as charging for access to an airplane lavatory. We'll see how he does selling MMA fans, already leveraged to the hilt to make good on monthly pay-per-view fees, on purchasing a card two weeks after an ugly event in Abu Dhabi and two weeks before a rematch between Lyoto Machida and Mauricio Rua in Montreal.
All those factors matter, but perhaps not as much as the possibility of Zuffa's being victimized by its own branding success with the UFC.
Unable to use those three letters -- Zuffa's most powerful promotional weapon -- the company has blurred lines as much as possible, using White as the ringmaster while the WEC brand has been cast aside in favor of a more boxing-flavored "Aldo vs. Faber" narrative.
Said Faber: "You can definitely see they're doing a little more here, basically lending some of the star power and people they've promoted along the process -- Dana White being one of them, Joe Rogan, whose Q rating is probably the highest rated in the sport. It's nice because it's an event people need to see and they're having influential people talk about it."
How much the maneuver pumps up Saturday's pay-per-view tally, said White, no one knows, yet anything less than twice the 70,000 to 90,000 reported buys for an April 3 boxing bout between Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr. would be "terrible."
White, as he's done in the past, pushed the event as something "true fight fans" will watch, suggesting unfairly if you won't, you aren't. He highlighted the depth of the card -- including a rematch of SI.com's 2009 bout of the year between WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson and Donald Cerrone -- though that may do little to assuage fans working through an understandable bout of déjà vu.
White's main argument for moving to pay-per-view centers on fighters deserving a chance to make the kind of money they can't competing on Versus, which is impossible to argue against even if it manifests as a tax on the consumer.
"There's a lot at stake to prove that people want to see us fight," Faber said. "This is an opportunity for fans to get behind the growth of the sport and continue to have amazing fights, because this is what fuels it, the pay-per-view shows."
The highest official payout for a WEC telecast on Versus is $287,000. By comparison, when the UFC appeared on the network on March 21, Zuffa paid $713,000 in purses, including $110,000 for unranked heavyweight Cheick Kongo.
Faber, like other fighters on the card, will wait to receive his "discretionary bonus," which Zuffa-signed mixed martial artists have come to rely on like social security, before deciding whether he was given his fair share.
White, too, will reserve judgement. If the fans don't respond, if another non-UFC brand fails to deliver like so many others, "yeah," he admitted, "we're going to be a little deterred" on the future of WEC on pay-per-view.