This last Friday’s announcement by the now-former UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre was far from shocking during what has been a tumultuous few years for the UFC. It was clear for many that Georges had been mulling over his retirement for many months now and that a razor-close victory over Johny Hendricks made it even more clear for him that it was time to get his life in order outside of the ring. The UFC lost one of their last stable champions when GSP retired last Friday, as well as one of their last real stars, all while being unable to create new stars.
It should be abundantly clear to anyone willing to look at the UFC outside of rose-colored glasses that they are rapidly-approaching a dilemma that they are unprepared for; they have not created any new stars in the past few years, and all of their established stars are retiring. We’ve seen the departure of Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Brock Lesnar and, well, you get the point. The careers of Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre winding down along with interim-draws like Chael Sonnen, leaving the UFC with fewer and fewer options to headline PPVs.
UFC has the infrastructure at the moment to sustain itself, no doubt, but the “fastest-growing sport in the world” has really slowed down over the past few years. This is, in part, because of their inability to turn their current roster of fighters and champions into stars. Part of the original charm of UFC was the rebellious, anti-establishment sport that made it appeal to all sorts of fans. I’d have strange moments in past years where friends who never had even a passing interest in any sports would tell me that they were Chuck Liddell fans and that he was going to win his next fight. That kind of enthusiasm doesn’t seem to exist anymore and it’s their own damned fault.
The UFC treats every event, big or small, like it is a must-see event. There is an astonishing amount of hyperbole applied to each and every fight on each and every card which is just downright exhausting. There is a sense that even missing one fight might lead to missing something important. Far be it from me to complain about more fights being on television, but the way in which they are sold to the world is tiring, to say the least. Due to the tumultuous nature of the sport and the numerous injuries literally anyone in any division could be called up for a spot on a main card or even a title shot. This means that the UFC has title contenders coming off of being buried deep on the undercard of events without fans really knowing them that well.
To be blunt, it is difficult for fans to find fighters to emotionally invest in and follow. UFC’s matchmaking tries to stay pure to who fights who, but when even the smallest thing goes awry the matchmaking can turn loopy and you have Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort challenging for the UFC Light Heavyweight title. It is moments like that where UFC’s “best fight the best” narrative is thrown out the window completely. Then factor in decisions like cutting “boring” fighters like Yushin Okami and Jon Fitch free or turning away Ben Askren for “lack of experience” and just further trample the dream of the best fighting the best at all times.
Maybe it’s time to drop the whole charade and to get real; the UFC is not the NFL or any other major sport, the UFC is simply “real” professional wrestling. Before you scoff, rage or close this tab, hear me out. The UFC has nothing in common with the NFL outside of it being a sport and consumed for entertainment purposes. The UFC is much closer to that of the Boxing or professional wrestling model, although for the actual product I lean towards Boxing. But in how the company is run and presented it is much more professional wrestling than Boxing. A Boxer has to deal with a trainer, a manager, a promoter and a television network, all of which could have separate deals with them, while in the UFC you have a trainer, manager and your promoter, who completely handles everything else while you are housed under his roof. The UFC is much closer to the WWE in that regards, with the Dana White and Vince McMahon parallels too numerous to count or list.
So if the UFC is really that close to professional wrestling, why are they having such a hard time building up stars and making fans genuinely interested not only in the product, but the fighters as well? The WWE does push the brand over all-else like the UFC does, but they also spend substantial amounts of time gauging audience reactions and to building up new stars, giving their audience what they want. This isn’t to say that the WWE always gives their audiences what they want, but they’ve done a much better job than the UFC has.
Take Jon Jones for example. Jon Jones has been the UFC’s pet project for years now and they have been pushing him as their big, huge star. The thing is, as talented as a fighter as Jon Jones is or as big of a sponsorship that he might land, he’s still falling dreadfully short when it comes time to sell a PPV fight. Maybe it was the string of easy fights that he was handed this year or maybe it is the way that he completely mishandles his public image, but something about Jon Jones isn’t clicking for fans.
The same can be said for Ronda Rousey who quickly built up a fan base upon signing with the UFC and was trotted about to all of the mainstream media as the UFC’s next big star but under the scrutiny of the reality television cameras has been unable to hold up that image at all. Her strange, tear-filled interview segment during The Ultimate Fighter Finale seemed proof enough that the Ronda Rousey that the UFC wanted you to see didn’t line up with the Ronda Rousey that everyone was seeing.
If the UFC wants their fighters to be seen as stars they need to start treating them like it and helping to promote them right alongside of the brand itself. Their brand over all else philosophy is only hurting them at this point as a brand and brand loyalty can only go so far. Fans want something to latch onto, especially now that the UFC isn’t some rebellious sports brand but one that is on Fox featuring Chael Sonnen in a suit. Make the fighters feel important, larger-than-life.
The other large problem is the way that they promote the events themselves. The quality of the product has not changed over the last few years, the quality of the fighters is probably better than ever, yet viewership and buy rates are steadily declining. Many point to fan burnout and how there are just so many UFC events, but then many will point to sports like the NFL which put on so many games a week and all are heavily-viewed that burnout seems like an odd thing to blame.
What should be taken away from this situation is that the UFC should probably take some cues from WWE’s model, which is weekly live television programs and a monthly PPV event. What that means is that fans know exactly when to tune in each and every week and know what quality of an event to expect during the week while they promote and build to the next PPV event. Sure, in the case of the UFC you won’t be able to have your upcoming PPV fighters involved in weekly fights like the WWE can do, but you can have them featured heavily on the program to help build up to the event, giving UFC’s very capable team the proper amount of time to promote the big event.
As it is now the UFC is stuck promoting events every week or two and only focusing on the next event at hand, not the one a few weeks away. It leads to some confusion as you’ll have random mid-week events mixed in with the usual Saturday events and some events airing on Fox Sports 2, some on Fox Sports 1, some on Fox and some on PPV. By presenting weekly, “lesser” cards the pressures of promoting each of those events like the next rapture will disappear and they’ll be able to focus on their next, big, money-making event instead.
Of course, these are only suggestions and there might not be a lone path to helping the UFC to make their events and their fighters feel special again, but what should be clear is that everything is not great for the UFC right now and it doesn’t seem like they are doing enough to face their shortcomings head on. With more events than ever scheduled for next year and them trying to shoehorn a digital network to their already dwindling-hardcore fan base it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds.