A Sentimental Miseducation

imagesThis essay, by Tom Hoisington of Eugene, Ore., won the grand prize in the CME’s second “annual” White Elephant Essay Contest.

You’ve got to be optimistic to be single. Stupid. You have to be stupid. Because that’s what optimism means, y’know. — Louis C.K.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — the place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back. — Hunter Thompson

If they could enter a time machine and travel to the mid- to late-80s, younger listeners of the Co-Main Event podcast arriving in suburban Seattle would witness a shocking phenomenon: Kids wearing the t-shirts and trading the stickers of surf brands. Although the drizzly Northwest is at a great remove from Mavericks and Diamond Head, kids of various ages proudly festooned themselves in neon wear from T&C, Gotcha, Ocean Pacific, and more. Our hypothetical time travelers would rightfully scratch their head in wonder: What the hell are all these soon-to-be-grunge fanatics doing in all this surf gear? The answer, of course, was that it was a fad. For some reason, some say because of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” surfing and surfing culture captured the imagination of the entire country for a couple years, even far-flung corners of the nation that had no real access to it or experience with it. I was reminded frequently of that time in my youth when I would pick up my nephews from school circa 2009 or 2010. There, elementary-age kids (and their fathers, to admit a harsh truth) proudly displayed their TapouT apparel for all to see. Likely none of the wearers trained, and many were far too young to invest the kind of attention it takes to intelligently follow a sprawling, disorganized, individual sport, but there they were. It was a fad. Now, about five years after, those t-shirts are not as readily found. Surf has given way to grunge. The single most perilous hazard currently afflicting MMA is the misguided notion that it will continue to grow, when in fact it has already peaked, and MMA promotions and affiliated companies would do well to focus on a sensible retrenchment rather than cancer-like expansion for its own sake.

Not persuaded by the anecdotal evidence? To indulge in a bit of picture-within-a picture citing, last year Greg Doyel cited CME-approved PPV-buyrates-svengali Dave Meltzer in saying that “UFC buys rose from 2007-10, then dropped by nearly 33% in 2011, then hovered in that same range for 2012.” TUF ratings continue their free fall; the show likely only remains on the air due to FOX’s desperation for original programming for its two recently launched sports networks. UFC Fight Night ratings on those networks are trending at about half of what they did on Spike. MMA media are fond of speculating on what the cause might be (dilution of the product quality, frequent PR blunders by fighters, Dana F’n White), yet often miss the forest for the trees: It’s two people. In a cage. Trying to hurt each other. The idea that such a concept would one day overtake the popularity of the NFL, let alone soccer globally, wasn’t just misguided from the start. Frankly, it was preposterous.

Never ones to let facts get in the way of a good narrative, White and the Fertittas continue to try to expand. Rather than cancel TUF or work to freshen it, we get new iterations based around the globe. Likewise, events seem to proliferate like a cloud of locusts, ensuring dilution of product, no matter what anyone contends. By definition, if more events are held and the number of quality fighters remain stagnant, the company has to employ less talented fighters. (See: Reinhardt, Jason.) And I’ve yet to see anyone contend that there’s been a boom in people wanting to become professional MMA fighters. Given what we hear from fighters about their quality of life as they now begin to retire from the still-young sport, I wouldn’t expect a mad rush of interested parties in the future, either.

So what’s the answer? Much as the word makes White gag, it’s the hardcores. When the WWE included PPVs on its online WWE Network, it was making a calculated risk. It infuriated the cable companies; some declined to carry its PPVs anymore. It stood to make significantly less money per viewer. But the WWE understands that wistfully gazing backward at the halcyon days of business models gone by isn’t laying a solid foundation for the future. Streaming content to micro-targeted audiences is where all video is eventually headed. Will there be fits and starts along the way to discovering how to make it profitable? Yes. But those who begin that process sooner rather than later are at an advantage versus dinosaurs who refuse to evolve. UFC 100 is not walking through that door, MMA fans.

Like it or not, the UFC has its fanbase. Might a growing female roster interest more women? Possibly. Could entering new markets like Mexico interest a few more fans? Maybe. But UFC Fight Pass drew a higher percentage of international subscribers than was initially expected, and that reveals an inconvenient truth about the internet: it already allowed anyone who had any interest in discovering MMA to discover it. Regardless of sex. Regardless of nationality. The awareness is there. The market is what it is. The time to work on introducing MMA to new fans is over. The focus now needs to be on not antagonizing existing fans to the extent that, despite their interest, they decide it’s not worth their time to follow the sport anymore. Finding a profitable, convenient, consumer-friendly way to deliver content to current fans will ensure the sport’s survival. Foolhardy quests to sell bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred fighting to viewers with no interest in the spectacle is both quixotic and suicidal, and could well relegate MMA’s relevance to future episodes of “I Love the ’10s!”

Works Cited

Doyel, Greg. “UFC won’t tap out in fight for major sports status, but it has peaked.” CBS Sports. 07 March 2013. Web. 09 May 2014.

Meltzer, Dave. “Much to learn from and about UFC Fight Pass and future of streaming channels.” MMA Fighting. 09 May 2014. Web. 09 May 2014.

Cruz, Jason. “TUF 19 Episode 4: 438,000 viewers.” 08 May 2014. Web. 09 May 2014.

Saccaro, Matt. “Are events like UFC Fight Night 32 why the UFC’s popularity is suffering?” Cage Potato. 10 Nov. 2013. Web. 09 May 2014.

Martin, Brian. “UFC President Dana White has NFL, weather and more on his mind.” Los Angeles Daily News. 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 09 May 2014.