What a difference a year makes.
Last July, Affliction’s Banned event received critical praise for its high-quality fights and big show atmosphere. And yet just a year later, a smiling Dana White can welcome Affliction back as a UFC sponsor. The fall of Affliction marks the end of any serious challenge to the UFC hegemony for the foreseeable future. Affliction, like EliteXC, was a head-on challenge to the UFC’s stranglehold over MMA outside of Japan. While Strikeforce will continue to develop and grow, its sustainable business model is geared towards generating profits not producing the headline grabbing product that will truly challenge the UFC’s position as the premier promotion within MMA.
And this is good news for the growth of MMA in North America and across the world. It will help the sport earn mainstream credibility, gain more casual fans and expand across the world.
The first thing the fall of Affliction does is remove the danger of MMA becoming like boxing, bedevilled with promoter politics and an alphabet soup of world titles that mean nothing. The UFC has been so successful because it has been able to present itself as MMA’s equivalent of the NFL or NBA. The fact that Fedor, the world’s number one ranked heavyweight, was fighting in America as Affliction’s star attraction undermined this carefully crafted image and started getting people in the mainstream talking about how the UFC Champion may not always be the undisputed champion of a particular weight division. With Affliction gone and Strikeforce unlikely to spend the money needed to sign Affliction’s headliners, the UFC can once again without question present itself as the world championships of MMA.
This absence of promoter politics can only be a good thing for MMA. In boxing we see how damaging promoter politics can be to the image and credibility of a sport. Decades of in-fighting has resulted in the media no longer respecting boxing’s administrators or particularly caring about its many different world titles. If MMA is to become a mainstream sport, it needs what every mainstream sport has – one promotion running the big shows and widely recognised undisputed champions. Without that the fights will not be accepted as significant sporting events and winning the championships will not be recognised as a significant sporting achievement. Having the UFC as the recognised premier promotion and its championships being undisputed champions of their weight divisions will encourage the mainstream sports media to take MMA seriously as a sport and treat its champions with the same respect they would any other world champion.
This lack of promoter politics will also help the UFC continue to reach out to casual fans. Many of the casual fans that the UFC has successfully attracted to MMA are boxing fans disillusioned by the lack of legitimate world champions. And to use the example of boxing again, a sport having multiple promotions encourages the promoters to focus on battling each other for the sport’s already established fanbase. The end of Affliction, will allow the UFC to redouble its efforts to reach out to casual fans and expand the MMA audience in America and other countries. It will also be able to take risks with new stars or production experiments that it perhaps wouldn’t have been willing to take if Affliction had been breathing down its neck.
And the fall of Affliction will probably result in the UFC strengthening its talent pool either by signing former Affliction headliners such as Fedor or by ensuring that established UFC stars stay with or (in the case of Tito Ortiz) return to the UFC. This strengthening of the UFC talent pool will allow it to run more events of a high quality. It’s this ability to run more events that is vital to future expansion of MMA because MMA’s expansion in Europe, Mexico and Australia is dependent on the UFC running more international events.
Of course, the fall of Affliction is not good news for everybody. Affliction paid its headliners a lot of money and undoubtedly forced the UFC to increase the amount of money it pays its headliners. Obviously, the fact that there is now once again only one promotion that is willing to pay fighters huge salaries will reduce the options open to fighters and restrict wage inflation within MMA. That said, I’m not convinced that the fall of Affliction will actually have as big an impact on fighter salaries as people may think. As the sport grows, the UFC will continue to have to increase fighter salaries if only to ensure that top quality college athletes choose MMA over other sports and ensure that ageing legends don’t retire early to concentrate on film and media work. As the fanbase increases and the sport becomes more mainstream then the types of sponsorship deals that are such a large part of other sportsmen’s income will increasingly be offered to fighters.
Many commentators point to the entertainment world to show how Dana White needs competition to stay hungry and to maintain interest. This is mistaken. Throughout the past forty years there have been attempts to challenge established sporting promotions or leagues i.e. the formation of the AFL and World Series Cricket. In all such cases they lead to a short-term spike in interest but eventually circumstances and common sense forced a merger. Competing promotions confuses and alienates fans by denying them of the matches they want to see, multiple championships denies the matches of sporting legitimacy and the attention that goes with it and the spreading of a sport’s resources across competing promotions diminishes the ability to effectively promote it to new fans. Above all, competition between promotions encourages promotions to look inward and compete for the same base audience when they should be outward looking and encouraging more people to get involved and watch the sport.
And the fact is that another MMA promotion doesn’t need to provide UFC with its competition. The UFC’s competition is other sports. A second major MMA promotion would diminish the ability of the UFC to focus on promoting MMA as a sport and put on the best events possible. When the day comes that MMA is accepted as a mainstream sport, the foundation of that acceptance will be the dominance of the UFC.