The Greatest MMA News Column 9.11.12: WSOF Joins the Fray
Posted by Dan Plunkett on 09.11.2012
News and thoughts on World Series of Fighting, successes and failures of modern MMA promotions, Aldo vs. Edgar, UFC on FX 6, Lorenz Larkin challenging Luke Rockhold, Sara McMann to Strikeforce, and more!
WSOF the Newest MMA Promotion
It's always interesting when a new, semi-major MMA promotion enters the scene to see how they set up their business and if they have learned from the mistakes of other promotions. After MMA's resurgence in popularity in 2005, a slew of promotions opened up shop in attempt to capitalize. This past week, World Series of Fighting, headed by PR and marketing executive Sig Rogich and former kickboxing star Ray Sefo, announced their debut show for November 3 on NBC Sports Network. Before seeing how WSOF looks to stack up, let's take a look at some at least semi-major promotions that have popped up over the years.
The International Fight League brought a lot of new things to mixed martial arts. It was a publicly traded company with a market cap of $150 million (making it vastly overvalued). Fighters received monthly salaries and health insurance. The concept of the IFL was quite different from every other MMA promotion. There were 10 teams all competing for the team championship and later individual titles. In 2007, the company signed television deals with MyNetworkTV and Fox Sports Net. Their show on the former had initial success, but it tapered off the show was canceled within a year. In 2008 they reached a deal with HDNet, but by that point the company was dead in the water with their stock price hovering around 10 cents per share. By mid-2008, the company was out of business.
The World Fighting Alliance reemerged after a four year hiatus, paid a lot of money to name fighters in Quinton Jackson, Matt Lindland, Bas Rutten, and more, and attempted to run on pay-per-view. Without a real big star and no television presence, the show failed. A follow-up show was announced, but never materialized as Zuffa, LLC, parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, bought select assets of the company (including the contracts of Jackson, who quickly became the company's light heavyweight champion, and future title holder Lyoto Machida).
In 2006, bodog head Calvin Ayre launched bodogFight. The main programming was a reality series that followed two fighters per episode and culminated in a fight between the two. The first season of the show aired on Men's Outdoor and Recreation in the United States, a very low rated cable channel which was in fewer homes than Fuel TV is in now (unsurprisingly, it has since ceased to exist). Season two of the show aired late on late Saturday nights on Ion Television, a network in most major markets, on a time buy. The season culminated in a PPV event headlined by Fedor Emelianenko, a very expensive fighter, which did a reported 13,000 buys. A third season aired again on Ion, but with losses in the tens of millions, the promotion officially closed its doors in 2008.
Elite Xtreme Combat entered the MMA world with a television deal in hand. Airing on Showtime, their debut event headlined by Frank Shamrock vs. Renzo Gracie drew a 1.62 rating (as far as pure ratings are concerned, EliteXC's debut dew higher than the recent Ronda Rousey vs. Sarah Kaufman fight on Showtime). The most notable fight on that show was one that promoter Gary Shaw had to fight tooth and nail to get on the air. Gina Carano beat Julie Kedzie in a fight that tore the house down. Women's MMA has been a staple of MMA broadcasts on Showtime ever since and Carano became one of EliteXC's two biggest stars. The only star bigger was Kimbo Slice, the street brawler turned MMA fighter drew then-record ratings for MMA on Showtime before the promotion debuted on CBS. As the first MMA promotion to hold a live event on primetime network TV, EliteXC received a lot of attention for their CBS debut on May 31, 2008. The show was a ratings hit. Kimbo Slice, though far from a talented mixed martial artist, headlined the show against James Thompson, during which he famously exploded Thompson's cauliflower ear with a punch in a grotesque sight. Carano also thrived in the spotlight, winning her fight by decision and gaining over a million viewers from the previous bout. EliteXC ran two more shows on CBS, one unsuccessful, the other (headlined by Kimbo) nearly as successful as the first.
What caused EliteXC's downfall in October 2008 shortly after the third CBS special was a combination of things, the biggest being some $50 million in debt parent company ProElite accrued in a remarkably short period of time. They could have continued for at least somewhat longer had it not been for the controversy stemming from the third CBS special. Seth Petruzelli replaced Ken Shamrock in the main event the day of the show and pulled off a quick win against Slice. Days later, Petruzelli insinuated in an interview that it'd have been worth his while to stand with Slice, who had little chance in a grappling battle. As a result, CBS became weary of buying into the company, which would have saved it, and called off such negotiations. Even if they had continued, two of their most lucrative, pay-per-view ready fights were ruined by the results of the CBS show. Petruzelli beat Slice, ruling out Kimbo vs. Brett Rogers for the heavyweight title. And Shamrock being forced out of the main event due to a cut on the day of the show put him in bad graces with CBS and EliteXC, meaning there would be little chance of Ken returning to fight his brother Frank Shamrock. In early 2009, Strikeforce purchased select assets of ProElite, signaling an official end to EliteXC's days as a promotion.
By 2008, the UFC had scooped up the top fighter in each of their weight classes with the exception of one. That one fighter was heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, universally ranked as the best heavyweight in the world since 2003. Under the thinking that there was a lot of value in having the best heavyweight in the world under contract, many promotions threw big money at Emelianenko. The most notable example is Affliction, a clothing company turned MMA promotion in 2008. They signed every top heavyweight available, including former UFC champs Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski, and Josh Barnett, paying all big money, especially Arlovski as UFC was interested in keeping him. At this time, reigning UFC champion Randy Couture was on the outs with the company, partially due to their inability to sign Fedor. Affliction saw Fedor vs. Couture as their big money fight that would take them to another level as a promotion, but in fall 2008 Couture came to terms with the UFC and returned to the Octagon. Affliction moved right onto pay-per-view, but while pay-per-view money was the only way they were going to become profitable, it wasn't going to be a success without television. Their first show, headlined by Fedor vs. Sylvia, drew slightly more than 100,000 buys, a number well above most expectations but substantially less than the amount necessary to break even. The UFC actually helped Affliction by running a show opposite them on late notice, garnering Affliction more publicity and landing both on the front page of ESPN.com on the day of the fight with the "head-to-head" story.
Affliction's second event was slated for October in Las Vegas with a Barnett vs. Arlovski main event, but was canceled due to poor ticket sales. They returned in January with Arlovski taking on Fedor and did below the business of the first show. Affliction: Trilogy was slated for August 1 with Fedor fighting Josh Barnett. Weeks before the bout, Barnett failed a drug test when applying for his license in California, forcing him out of the fight. A hunt for a new opponent began and got the company far more publicity than they would have otherwise had. With a $500,000 purse up for grabs, Bobby Lashley, Brett Rogers, and Vitor Belfort were under consideration for the spot, but Affliction went with an alternative option. Affliction Entertainment was purchased by the UFC in a deal that allowed them back into the UFC as a sponsor; under the condition they would cease promoting MMA events.
In early 2006, Strikeforce tried their hand at MMA for the first time presenting a main event Frank Shamrock vs. Cesar Gracie, also featuring the debut of Cung Le in San Jose, California. The event drew very well locally and was the beginning of a period where Strikeforce drew really well in the area. The peak of Strikeforce's regional era was a Shamrock vs. Le middleweight title bout that drew more than 16,000 in San Jose. In early 2009, Strikeforce purchased select assets of ProElite, taking much of their marquee talent and national television deal with Showtime. The first event of the new Strikeforce pitted Shamrock against Nick Diaz in a passing of the torch of sorts. Diaz handily won and went on to become one of Strikeforce's biggest stars. They were successful on Showtime for a couple of years, though they failed on CBS during the period due to a low rated event and a post-fight brawl.
Late in the summer of 2009, Strikeforce locked up Fedor Emelianenko, whose large contract was a heavy burden on the promotion, though he did prove to be their biggest ratings draw. Strikeforce could have run on pay-per-view and done relatively well, but they didn't have the one match-up so obvious to make for pay-per-view that it was slapping them in the face. They could have done Fedor vs. Alistair Overeem in mid-2010, and it was their plan to go with that fight on PPV after building it up on TV, but Fedor lost just one month after Overeem returned to the company after a lengthy absence. In March 2011, with Strikeforce just a month removed from its biggest event ever on Showtime, Zuffa bought the company in a shocking turn of events. Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, a major partner in Strikeforce, wanted out of the MMA game to pursue their interest in bringing another sports franchise to San Jose. SVSE simply didn't see the type of returns on Strikeforce that were necessary for them to stay in the business. Strikeforce continues to run under the Zuffa umbrella today, but it is a very different promotion compared to two years ago.
Bellator Fighting Championships debuted in 2008 with a tournament format. Initially airing on ESPN Deportes and targeting a Spanish speaking audience, Bellator has since moved to MTV2 and broadened their target audience. The promotion runs in seasons of 12 weeks at a time, with a show each week, and they hold the occasional off season event as well. Bellator generally sells their live shows to casinos, who then sell the tickets and keep the money generated. To this point, it has been a successful plan. What separates Bellator from other companies is that they have yet to grossly overpay to bring a star fighter in. That have some star fighters, and though they don't have a marquee match-up that could headline a pay-per-view, that's something that could change when they move to a much larger platform in Spike TV at the start of next year. They're a promotion not overpaying for fighters, not rushing to pay-per-view in an attempt to cash in quick, and their popularity should expand quickly when they make the jump to Spike.
That leaves us with World Series of Fighting, the newest entry onto the MMA landscape. WSOF will make its debut November 3 on the NBC Sports Network, formerly known as Versus. Interestingly, at the press conference they announced a one year deal with the network, but NBC Sports Network later said it was a one show deal and they would re-evaluate after that. That means WSOF will need to pull a good number the first time out. They have already built a stable of name fighters including Miguel Torres, Bobby Lashley, Josh Burkman, Gerald Harris, and Tyrone Spong.
Without a television deal or success on pay-per-view (which isn't happening right out of the gate), the promotion won't be able to sustain itself at the current level because those fighters aren't exactly cheap, making it critical for the first show to be a success. The Strikeforce card on the same night, with Frank Mir vs. Daniel Cormier, is really going to hurt WSOF because Mir vs. Cormier is a much more attractive fight to MMA fans. If NBC Sports passes, WSOF could potentially land on another channel, but that is far from a guarantee (at least when it comes to meaningful television networks) as there aren't as many networks looking to get in the MMA business as there were five years ago. Even if they do sign a deal with NBC Sports Network after November 3, there's no guarantee the promotion will stick around for the long term. When the WEC aired on Versus, did bigger numbers than WSOF promises to do and had a higher profile so they got bigger sponsorships, they were still a money losing company. Time and time again it's been shown that if you want to be successful in MMA you'd better be in it for the long haul and not try to rush things. Only time will tell if World Series of Fighting follows that strategy.
Aldo vs. Edgar official for UFC 153. In a case where an injury led to a positive thing for the UFC, Erik Koch pulled out of his October title shot against Jose Aldo and has been replaced by Frankie Edgar. In the eyes of many, it will essentially be a champion vs. champion fight, as most seemed to feel Edgar should have gotten the decision in August against Ben Henderson. Edgar will look to become the third two division champion in UFC history after Randy Couture and BJ Penn. Aldo will look to cement his place as one of the very best fighters in the sport. Against Edgar, he has the chance to beat a guy that has a legitimate claim at being the #1 fighter in the lightweight division. Aldo will also be looking to tie Georges St-Pierre on the list of most consecutive title defenses under the Zuffa banner with 6 (2 in WEC, 3 in UFC). The match-up won't draw what other "super-fights" would, but it certainly deserves to be billed as a super-fight.
UFC on FX 6 announced. UFC on FX 6 will take place on December 14 in Australia (December 15 local time). The headlining bout will be Hector Lombard vs. Rousimar Palhares. The night will serve as the finals of the second international season of "The Ultimate Fighter," pitting Team Australia vs. Team UK. As a result, the shows coaches will battle at the event, with George Sotiropoulos (Team Australia) batting Ross Pearson (Team UK). No word on where in Australia the show will be held, but UFC has run at the Allphones Arena (previously Acer Arena) for every visit to the land down under thus far, including for March's UFC on FX 2. That show drew extremely well for a free TV card, but it's debatable if the December 14 show would draw better or worse in the same arena. The argument for worse is that it's the second show in the market this year and attendance for the second show typically declines under those circumstances. Furthermore, Australians can't be happy about being passed over for a major show yet again. On the other side, the show will be built up for the duration of the TUF season, which can only help. However, TUF Finales generally don't draw big at the live gate. I would favor it doing under the $2.2 million gate of UFC on FX 2.
Lorenz Larkin, not Jacare Souza, challenges Luke Rockhold on November 3. In a very Strikeforce move, undefeated Lorenz Larkin will battle Luke Rockhold for the middleweight championship on 11/3 in Oklahoma. Larkin made his middleweight debut in his last fight against Robbie Lawler, winning a decision. Logic indicated Jacare Souza would rematch Rockhold for the title, but he's been passed over despite being healthy. I understand Rockhold vs. Larkin is a fresh match-up, but Souza is coming off a very impressive win and most would prefer him to get the shot.
Sara McMann debuts with Strikeforce 11/3 against Liz Carmouche. McMann, 31, won a silver medal in wrestling in the 2004 Olympics. She's won the first six fights of her MMA career, three by decision, two by submission, and one TKO. If she beats Carmouche, it could set up a battle of Olympic medalists against Ronda Rousey, who needs an opponent if her bout with Cyborg Santos doesn't materialize.
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