What does Strikeforce need to do to challenge the UFC?

With EliteXC and Affliction having imploded the MMA landscape is now once again dominated by the  UFC. Their third-tier PPV events do more buys than a rival promotion could dream of doing for their biggest PPV and there is already talking about further expansion with rumours surfacing over the weekend of a possible deal with NBC/ESPN.

The collapse of EliteXC and Affliction leaves Strikeforce as the only possible challenger to the UFC. Since they moved into the MMA business in 2006 they’ve carefully grown their business by building a strong fanbase in California. Indeed, it’s a Strikeforce show that currently holds the record for largest paid attendance at an American MMA show. And this year they’ve moved up a level by buying EliteXC’s deals with Showtime and CBS and picking up the contracts of some of their key fighters including Nick Diaz and Gina Carano.
So the question is what does Strikeforce have to do to successfully challenge the UFC?

The first thing is that they would have to realise that is they would be trying to take on the UFC at its own game. There is no better business model for promoting MMA than the one that the UFC has perfected over the past few years. You need to be using TV to develop the personalities of your major fighters and get the fans to care about the upcoming fights. If Strikeforce was really going to compete then it would have to start doing this. Simply having great fights isn’t enough unless you give the fans a reason to care by getting them to connect with the fighters’ personalities. Simply put; fights attract the hardcore audience but it’s the fighters that draw in the casual audience. Until Strikeforce finds a way to get across the larger-than-life nature of its fighters then it will struggle to get casual fans to tune in. A key to that would be getting a mainstream cable channel to work with them in the same way that Spike has worked with the UFC over the past four years.  

And in a way their next show proves that, with the one fight that is garnering mainstream attention being the women’s championship fight between Gina Carano and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos. What’s great about this fight is that not only are the two women over with the general public thanks to their exposure on CBS but it offers fans something that they cannot get at a UFC show. While one has to question whether the women’s division has enough quality in depth to be a long-term draw, being able to distinguish itself from the UFC by offering types of fights that you don’t see in the Octagon will help Strikeforce get mainstream media coverage.

Should Strikeforce ever try to challenge the UFC directly, they must also realise that success does not come instantly. As the IFL, EliteXC and Affliction have all discovered taking on the UFC is not a good way to make a quick buck. It took Zuffa almost five years to start turning a profit on the UFC, and that was after they had tried to sell the company in 2004 and had in desperation launched the Ultimate Fighter reality show. And while the UFC overcame fearsome odds to turn a profit, that would be nothing compared to the obstacles they would create if they believed that Strikeforce was a legitimate threat.

In addition to patience, they would also need to be lucky. We have seen over the past year the main rivals to the UFC bedevilled with misfortune whilst the UFC has hit a lucky streak. Just think, if Ken Shamrock hadn’t gone done with an injury in October, EliteXC would probably still be in business, possibly owned by CBS. Imagine how much more successful Affliction would have been if they had have been able to get Randy Couture out of his UFC contract and book that dream match with Fedor. If Strikeforce was going to challenge the UFC’s dominance, then they would need all the luck in the world.

But above all that they would have to invest a LOT of money to present the type of product that would not be seen as being second-rate when compared with the UFC. Zuffa invested millions into a failing business during the first half of this decade trying to get the UFC to a level where it could compete with other sports. And today it can afford to pay its headliners six figure purses to fight on its biggest events. If Strikeforce is ever going to challenge the UFC then they will at some point have to forget about short-term profits and invest a large amount of money to improve the product and grow the business. Until they feel confident enough to do that they will never be able to truly challenge the UFC.

And that probably is going to be true for a long time. Strikeforce has repeatedly made it clear that they are not going to make the type of head-on challenge to the UFC that proved so expensive and futile for EliteXC and Affliction. From the refusal to sign Kimbo Slice on a big-money deal to passing on an expensive merger with Affliction, Scott Croker has proven to be a cautious promoter focused on growing his business in a sustainable way. And such slow and steady growth will ensure that Strikeforce will still be in business in a year’s time. However, it will still be in business presenting a niche product that doesn’t challenge the UFC’s hegemony. If they ever want to really challenge the UFC they would have to gamble everything. And should they ever make that gamble they would probably lose anyway.

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