MMA fans are likely finding themselves quite satisfied after taking in more high-level MMA over the past weekend than they usually do in a week. World Series of Fighting, Invicta FC, and of course the UFC (with their UFC Fight Night 33 installment) all put on solid events, and with so much MMA available you have to wonder how this delicate balance of power between promotions will play out in the coming months and years. Obviously the undisputed king in this equation is the UFC, they have been for years now. But with so many promotions coming and going over the years and with the UFC getting bigger and bigger and seemingly less and less interested in crushing every other possible competitor, it leaves many questions. How much programming can the MMA viewing public support? Will other promotions pop up as non-ZUFFA companies continue to survive? How many more acquisitions can/will ZUFFA make? Where does Bellator fit in? We could go on and on. Seeing as how Bellator has the big money Viacom backing to stick around as long as they want and/or their trust fund doesn’t run out, we will leave them out of this discussion. But for the three aforementioned promotions that put on the bigger events this weekend, let’s take a look at their past, present, and future.
Call Me Kong
Obviously the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the UFC. They just turned 20-years old, seem to have things figured out top to bottom, and with the huge lead that they have on everyone else, it will take a truly catastrophic series of events for them to relinquish the number 1 spot. Since the Fertitta brothers and Dana White purchased the company in early 2001, they have put in an incredible amount of work, ironed out almost all of the kinks, and closing in on 2014 the ship runs smoothly and efficiently. The history is very interesting and maybe in another article we can go over it in its entirety, but for now let’s look at the UFC and how they have interacted with other promotions.
Take No Prisoners
With TUF and the accompanying “ZUFFA BOOM” around 2005-06, MMA was looked at as a potential money maker for all kinds of interests. This saw new promotions popping up seemingly every month. Up until this point it was mainly the Japan based PRIDE organization that the UFC was concerned with, and even with them it was mainly a concern of fighter poaching, not actual competition. But then in the coming years we saw the WFA, IFL, WEC, ELITE XC, Affliction, Strikeforce, and PRIDE all make moves to try and openly compete with the UFC. Some of them made bold but ill-advised moves, some were not bold enough, some were shady as all hell, and they all eventually ended up directly or indirectly on Dana White’s tombstone. The UFC was simply too powerful to overcome and at their most ruthless, would go straight for the jugular of competitors with aggressive counter programming, scaring away sponsors, and publicly blasting the life out of them, Dana White was not playing around. The moral of the story is it is not easy to survive much less thrive for non ZUFFA owned entities in today’s MMA market. But now we are seeing a savvy few promotions hanging in there and looking promising, namely World Series of Fighting and Invicta FC, here is how they seem to be doing it.
In 2012 it was announced that a new a promotion named World Series of Fighting (WSOF) was not only formed but they also already had a respectable TV deal on NBC Sports, formerly known as the Versus network. The first thing that people noticed was the name which was clever and already familiar to the casual audience for obvious reasons. I’m guessing the association that your average Joe makes between the world series and the best teams in baseball would lead them to make a similar assumption of the WSOF talent. Who knows how much any of this ended up mattering but I get it.
The Game Plan
WSOF had respected combat sports veteran Ray Sefo as president and went to work. They built a roster full of respected veterans with remaining appeal and young guns with promise to simultaneously draw interest and keep costs relatively low, a measure that companies like Affliction, WFA, and even Strikeforce did not take enough. Throwing huge money at fighters who are largely unproven in their ability to draw was a big mistake. With the talent in place they now needed a home and this is where NBC Sports came in. The channel space had previous success with MMA under the Versus name and then lost it as the UFC signed with TV giant FOX. WSOF was all too happy to swoop in and snatch that spot up, initially securing a trial deal to feature only their inaugural event but impressing enough in the process to seal a nice 3 year deal.
WSOF rounded things out with grass roots talent development via WSOF Canada, Central America, Australia/New Zealand, and Japan. They also formed a strategic partnership with Japanese OG promotion Pancrase to exchange talent and assist in their respective markets. And finally there is the issue of how to deal with the UFC, probably the most important piece of the puzzle. So far so good on that front, with WSOF making no aggressive or bold statements publicly challenging the UFC and with WSOF president Ray Sefo even attending UFC events, things look all good for now.
A Beauty and a Beast
Back in 2007 a beautiful young woman named Gina Carano almost single handily spearheaded the most significant progress to date for woman’s MMA. Be it headlining the first WMMA fight featured on premium cable or drawing well over 100,000 viewers to her Strikeforce fight against Christiane “Cyborg” Santos, Carano proved that WMMA was a viable product. Since then many more women fighters have entered the spotlight and many promotions have been largely unsuccessful in selling them. Strikeforce, EliteXC, KOTC, Bellator etc. Many brands have featured the women but for a host of reasons never took it as far as it could have gone. And then in 2011, when Strikeforce was gone and an entire roster of impressive female athletes were looking for a home, there was suddenly a big population of unemployed world -class women.
Filling the Void
Shannon Knapp and Janet Martin then came along with a welcomed idea to start an all women MMA promotion. With both women having a good deal of experience in the business they were able to form Invicta FC, the first large scale MMA promotion in America to feature exclusively women. Just like WSOF, Invicta is going about things intelligently avoiding mistakes made by the many dearly departed MMA brands. Their best asset is for sure their talent comprised of many top WMMA athletes and have more woman under contract than any other promotion. Even with the UFC now promoting 135 pound women and planning to add a 125 division, Invicta still holds a great deal of name talent. Aside from featuring women across 5 divisions as opposed to the UFC’s soon to be 2, they feature quite a few big names and recently landed their 2 biggest signings yet in Christiane “Cyborg” Santos and Felice Herrig. Avoiding another previous pitfall for many, Invicta has built their customer base slowly by initially offering fights free on their website, then moving to online PPV, and eventually televised PPV, all at a reasonable price range of 15-25 dollars. Strategic partners in the form of Japanese WMMA promotion JEWELS should be a very valuable partnership with the wealth of WMMA talent residing in Japan. And finally, Shannon Knapp, like Ray Sefo, maintains a friendly relationship with UFC president Dana White which again, is huge.
With so many MMA promotions having come and gone it is just now looking like there could be room for some healthy competition amongst brands. Don’t get me wrong I realize that the UFC could still crush just about any of these rivals if they chose to but Dana White himself has acknowledged the need for lower tier promotions to give up n coming fighters a place to start, make some money, and work their way up. It appears that WSOF and Invicta are following very similar business models and so far they are working well. They are not the only 2 shows currently doing a healthy amount of business but they are unique in that they are managing to do well and even grow all while avoiding the minefield of dangers that can and have killed many a promotion.