UFC 2014: Looking ahead to a pivotal year

Welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre announced that he needed to take some time off from MMA following a split decision win over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 in 2013. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa/Getty)

The bar has been raised and the stakes are high as the UFC prepares to kick off their 2014 fight calendar with their inaugural fight card Singapore, 10-fight event that also serves as the official debut of the new subscription-based digital network, Fight Pass.

Coming off a 12-month run widely regarded as the best year in UFC history and facing numerous major questions, it’s safe to say that the year ahead is a pivotal one for the biggest brand in mixed martial arts.

Let’s address some of those issues.

Who Will Headline?

Georges St-Pierre has retired, though he never said the actual word. Those whispers of a Brock Lesnar comeback were just the wind playing tricks on you.

Anderson Silva’s leg is in a cast and his future is in doubt, while champions Cain Velasquez and Anthony Pettis are currently sidelined following surgical procedures of their own.

While the options that remain for atop the pay-per-view marquees are obvious – Ronda Rousey, Chris Weidman, Jon Jones, Jose Aldo – none of them are proven commodities, and buy rates have been dwindling even when an established headliners like St-Pierre has been front and center.

What’s more is that the current crop of potential championship bouts doesn’t carry the same energy as some of the contest that hit the cage over the last year. For every fight that surprised the masses like Jones’ narrow victory over Alexander Gustaffson, there was on that had the fight community buzzing long before it hit. There just aren’t any of those fights on the horizon this year.

As much as the championship fights that are already planned for the opening quarter of this year are interesting in their own way, none generate interest and stir debate the way each of Weidman’s bouts with Silva or St-Pierre’s showdown with Johny Hendricks did.

That leaves the UFC in the unenviable position of having to ratchet up the intrigue and find a way to sell an already fickle fan base on a collection of fights that are simply good fights, something that has rarely been enough to move the needle.

And that’s just pay-per-view.

The ripple effect of losing two of the most dominant champions in history and having two more sidelined for the opening half of the year is sure to hit the four shows scheduled for FOX in 2014 as well. After five consecutive events with a championship main events, this month’s return to Chicago is now being headlined by lightweight contenders Benson Henderson and Josh Thomson. That in turn impacts the standard televised events that are historically capped off by a contenders bout of this nature, and down the line it goes.

Though transitioning from the days of Silva and St-Pierre lording over their respective divisions, dispatching any and all challengers with relative ease to this new era is ultimately a good thing, things may not go smoothly to start.

There is no guaranteeing they get better as the year goes on either.

International Events on Fight Pass

It’s going to be interesting to see how things shake out with Fight Pass, the new subscription-based digital platform that will be the exclusive home of 10 international events this year.

For starters, you’re asking fans to spend another $10/month on UFC content. While the dollar figure may not sound like much, it becomes an additional cost on top of a monthly cable bill that probably requires fans to order a specific package in order to receive the full slate of televised content, plus whatever expenditures one incurs for pay-per-views each month.

If you’re they type that likes to watch from the comfort of your own couch, you’re looking at close to $100/month specifically for UFC content, and that’s for a month where only one pay-per-view lands on your bill.

There is also the risk of fighters getting lost in the shuffle competing on cards that do not generate the same kind of interest and audience as their televised counterparts.

It wasn’t all that long ago that fans and critics moaned about then-challenger Chris Weidman fighting Anderson Silva because his last fight had taken place on Fuel TV and he wasn’t a big enough name.

Now, legitimate contenders like Tarec Saffiedine and Alexander Gustafsson are going to be competing on events that are exclusive to Fight Pass, limiting their exposure. Fighting opposite Jimi Manuwa on this platform isn’t going to take the shine off Gustafsson’s star, but it does mean that a smaller audience than normal is going to see what is potentially a set-up fight to a rematch with Jones.

Even though “The Mauler” is an established contender and a second showdown with Jones would sell without mention of his bout with Manuwa, it doesn’t make sense to have a guy that could be one win away from a major championship rematch competing so far removed from the public eye.

It’s a double-edged sword for the UFC – they’re either criticized for putting top stars on Fight Pass cards or taking heat for trying to sell a card full of unknowns at 10 bucks a pop.

While some of these events are sure to get lost in the shuffle over the next 12 months, how Fight Pass performs and the reception it receives in the coming year will be one of the dominant stories for the UFC in 2014. It’s the right move in terms of long-term business strategy, but it might take some time for everyone to get on board and see the value in the venture.

Hitting the Domestic Plateau

The major focus from a business standpoint in 2014 is continued international expansion and an even greater presence in foreign markets the organization has been to in the past. In addition to Saturday’s debut in Singapore, the UFC is expected to hold events in Poland, Turkey, and Scotland for the first time this year, as well as returning to Ireland, Germany, and Sweden.

Domestically, the UFC has pretty much leveled off.

Maybe there is another major push coming two or three years down the line, but right now, the sport has plateaued. Events aren’t selling out in record time – if at all – and the oversaturation of the market has erased the “must-see event” feel that used to accompany UFC broadcasts. As has been said numerous times in the past, because you can catch another collection of fights every 7-10 days, the urgency of tuning into each event is decreased, even though every fight card is unique in its own way.

There are numerous sports organizations outside of the big four that would kill for the UFC’s numbers, and it needs to be said that the company has room to grow alongside their partners at Fox Sports as their new network continues to get stronger, but that whole “bigger than the NFL” thing isn’t happening.

In reality, the UFC is restricted in terms of how big it can grow by the basic nature of the sport. While Dana White is fond of saying, “Fighting is in our DNA,” there are a finite number of people who find MMA appealing, and a similar portion of the population that find it unwatchable, which limits potential growth.

And let’s be honest: it’s not exactly easy to follow, at least not in comparison to traditional sports like football or baseball.

Your team doesn’t play every Sunday or 162 times between April and October, and for as basic as watching one man punch another man in the face can be, seeing two fighters go back and forth in a technical grappling battle on the canvas lands at the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

Like any niche sport, there is a diehard audience that is always going to support the UFC in everything they do, and a collection of casual fans that will account for the pitches and falls in pay-per-view numbers and television ratings based on the perceived strength of fight cards and the buzz that accompanies them.

But there is no major rush of support on the horizon. Hundreds of thousands of new fans are not going to be cultivated from within North America in 2014, not after they’ve had 20 years to embrace the sport and close to a decade since the UFC made a push towards the mainstream.

If anything, pay-per-view numbers will probably continue to regress this year, especially given the aforementioned dearth of established names and compelling match-ups available to headline those events.

Just as the success overseas and in South America will be a major focal point of the coming year, tracking the ebbs and flows of pay-per-view buys and television ratings in North America will be as well, and both will have a significant impact on how this year is viewed when it is over.

UFC on FOX: Year 3

This marks the beginning of the third year in the seven-year partnership between the UFC and Fox. So far, it’s difficult to give a fair assessment of how things have gone because so much changed between the first two years of the deal.

Midway through last year, the UFC shifted to the newly-launched Fox Sports 1, with Fuel TV being repackaged as Fox Sports 2 and relocated to the deep recesses of the cable television wasteland where even people that actively want to watch the network have a hard time finding it.

With the kinks worked out and the changes complete, Year 3 is crucial.

This is the year where Fight Night events need to start getting back towards Spike TV levels, and the quarterly events on FOX need to become major events that do strong ratings, something that will be challenging given the slate of bouts scheduled for the main card of this month’s return to the airwaves from the United Center in Chicago.

As much as the UFC wants to keep their biggest names for pay-per-view, tabbing one big name fighter to headline a nationally televised fight card ever four months shouldn’t be that difficult.

It would have made tremendous sense to schedule the featherweight championship bout between Jose Aldo and Ricardo Lamas in the main event of this show, as the challenger is a blue-collar Chicago native that has risen from anonymity to the brink of championship glory. Instead, the featherweights will play second fiddle to the bantamweight title unification tilt at UFC 169 on Super Bowl Saturday.

The UFC and FOX have had two years to get things squared away – find out what works and what doesn’t work, fix the things that are broken or in need of repair, and start showing appreciable gains.

If they haven’t done that by the end of this year, it’ll be time to question whether this deal is ever going to develop into the landmark partnership many anticipated it would be when it was announced in August 2012.

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