What Strikeforce Failed To Do When Challenging The UFC

In the aftermath of Affliction’s demise in July 2009 I wrote a column explaining what Strikeforce needed to do to challenge the UFC. Now in the wake of Strikeforce’s purchase by the UFC, let’s take a look at how they compared.

“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.”

Well we know the answer to this one. Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment created Strikeforce to help fill its HP Pavilion with regular fight events, and so its vision for the group had not really stretched that far beyond San Jose. A couple of opportunistic plays for bits of the EliteXC and Affliction carcasses meant that it was hurled onto the national stage and into an all-out war with the UFC. That meant running more shows and paying for better talent. It’s unclear whether Strikeforce was actually losing money or just simply needed ever more investment to grow, but there can be no doubt that it was sucking up more resources than its owners expected or wanted.

“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.”

Did they publicly mock and undermine the promotion and its fighters? Check. Did the UFC regularly counterprogram Strikeforce programmes? Check. Did they resign high-profile veterans solely to stop Strikeforce being able to use them to attract casual fans? Check. Did they poach the promotion’s top stars? Check.

“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… If Strikeforce was going to challenge the UFC’s dominance, then they would need all the luck in the world.”

Well Strikeforce was certainly not lucky with several pieces of bad fortune hurting them quite badly. High profile signings such as Bobby Lashley, Dan Henderson, Josh Thompson and above all Fedor Emelianenko were defeated in crucial matches that damaged their marketable and derailed the organisation’s booking plans. Their plans for a middleweight title tournament and the heavyweight grand prix schedule were derailed after arguments with Commissions. They were unable to prevent their middleweight champion Jake Shields leaving after failing to insert a champion’s clause in the contract they picked up from EliteXC. And the pier-six brawl that followed his shock successful defense against Henderson hastened the promotion’s demise on CBS.

“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…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”

While Strikeforce made more big money signings than I envisaged back in 2009, they certainly didn’t go for broke like Affliction or EliteXC did. They signed nobody that the UFC was seriously interested in, with major signings usually being people that had either fallen out with Zuffa or wanted to retain the ability to fight in Japan. Due to that they seemed in no danger of going out of business although neither did they have the short term business peaks that made EliteXC and Affliction briefly seem real threats to the UFC hegemony. Instead there was sustainable, incremental growth. But that growth meant that the stakes kept getting higher and higher until eventually Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment folded and took their cards off the table.

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