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5 Oz. of Pain on CBS Sports: How to build an MMA promotion

When it comes to the MMA landscape outside of the UFC, it’s a time of turmoil. Many companies have tried to go head-to-head with the UFC and they’ve not only failed in becoming a legitimate challenger, they weren’t even stable enough to become a solid number two.

While the BodogFIGHT, the IFL, the WFA, YAMMA Pit Fighting, and others have already gone down for the count, DREAM, EliteXC, and Affliction are still struggling to become a viable number two behind the UFC.

As of now, the future of all three promotions are sketchy at best. DREAM needed to pull a strong rating for DREAM.6 this past week on Tokyo Broadcasting Systems and failed miserably. TBS in Japan is the equivalent to a major network here in the U.S., except that DREAM actually makes some decent revenue from their deal. Without that TBS revenue, there most likely will be no DREAM.

EliteXC and Affliction are combining forces for next Saturday’s telecast of Saturday Night Fights with a co-promoted heavyweight attraction between Andrei Arlovski and Roy Nelson to complement the night’s main event between Ken Shamrock and Kimbo Slice. However, one has to wonder if it’s a case of too little, too late. Putting on exciting shows doesn’t always equate to financial solvency.

Will there ever be a healthy number two promotion? It remains to be seen. But I am certain there never will be if startup MMA companies keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. You can only burn through tens of millions of dollars for so long before investors decide to pull the plug.

Having followed the mistakes of all the promotions that have either tried and failed or are trying and are failing, I decide to compile a list of dos and don’ts for the benefit of any future companies and or investors looking to start a new company.

You can find that list by reading my latest submission on CBSSports.com. The article has already received a strong reaction and I highly recommend you check it out.

You can do so by clicking here.

Also, if you are looking for some more good reading, I recommend you go back and check out a special feature I did on new EliteXC bantamweight champion Wilson Reis for CBSSports.com back in July leading up to his fight on the undercard for EliteXC’s “Unfinished Business.” This site has been touting Reis for a long-time and the feature will give viewers greater insight into who the man is behind the fighter.

18 COMMENTS
  • mike wolfe says:

    One of the morals of the MMA story to date is don’t compete head to head with UFC unless you’re prepared to gamble with a hundred mill or so. UFC got in early and established themselves as the dominant brand. Newcomers who want a share of its market have to simultaneously build their identity and compete with the biggest player, something UFC didn’t have to do.

    Why not look for niches not occupied by UFC, like regions with strong fan bases? Establish that foundation and then think about expanding.

  • blake says:

    Is that what Adrenaline is trying to do in the midwest? I don’t hear much about them on this site, anyone got any info on them (I’ve developed an interest in them because I recently found out that I know someone in their management structure).

  • ttttt says:

    It will suck if / when the ufc is the only mma organization out there. I personally enjoy watching all of the mma out there accept for the IFL when it was out.

  • Simon Cason says:

    The way i see it is if you want to be a viable company and be around for more than 10 years, you dont go straight for the all-ready-established jugular of the UFC. That type of shit only brings out the ire in Dana. If your smart you play by the book and build your own stars, and not by taking the UFC’s banished/unwanted and claiming you are the better org. It looks bad when a casual fan turns on CBS and sees Kimbo getting his ass handed to him only to win. That shit makes a mockery of our sport. Another thing is look at what Scott Coker has done. He’s been in mma at least 10 years longer than Dana, but feels not ill will towards each other. In fact Dana has had nothing but positive things to say about Strikeforce. One thing you do not do is piss on the black Kettle(UFC) without expecting to get a little lemon juice thrown back at you. Whats so hard to acknowledge what Dana has done for the sport, just to make a mockery of mma by putting on recyclable cards every 3 or 4 months and in between time, piss Dana off to the point that you are on his shitlist,.

  • egad81 says:

    EliteXC is up $.25 even with a crashing stock market.

    For $3 you could own a part of the MMA world.

  • Steve says:

    great read, very well put.

  • Patrick says:

    Great article Sam but I’m not sold on ‘ your boy ‘ Wilson Reis. He’s BORING. I know he is a newcomer to the sport and he’s a BJJ expert(?) but COME ON! i watched his last 2 fights and may not watch another. I want to see fights finished and I don’t know if he can bring that to the table.

  • Brandt says:

    I enjoy reading about building a promotion because I’d love to do something like this. There’s only 1 problem, I have $0. So Sam, if you ever decide to start up a local/regional MMA promotion, give me a call. :)

  • Sam Caplan says:

    Patrick, I am sorry that you’re unable to appreciate world class jiu-jitsu. Perhaps they’ll bring back Toughman competitions so that you won’t be bored anymore.

  • Patrick says:

    I’d like it acknowledged that I am the Patrick who thinks Reis is an interesting prospect, not the Patrick that thinks he is boring.

    Other Patrick, I challenge you to a duel.

  • Mike Wolfe says:

    Boring? I thought Reis’s title fight was “fight of the night” on that card. Credit to Cullum, who performed much better than his limited record suggested he might. On paper that one promised to be a blow out. I’m looking forward to seeing both of them fight in the future.

  • Kuch says:

    Don’t try to beat the UFC – attempting to do so is foolish. Promotions need to work on establishing themselves through small steps. Strikeforce is doing a great job with their product.

  • Patrick says:

    Say what you want about Reis but did he show “world class” jiu jitsu in the Caraway fight? Could he submit a guy like Rani Yahya or JZ Calvancante? At this point in his career, I would say no. Say what you want with your ” I-saw-him-first ” bias but the guy is boring. I guess Miguel Torres and Shinya Aoki have me spoiled with REAL world class jiu jitsu skill. By the way, I said nothing about KO’s in my earlier comment, I said I like seeing fights finished. So your Toughman comment was a little off. Reis is fighting NOBODIES if he had “world class jiu jitsu” he should submit him.

    Other Patrick, Bring on your duel.

  • Patrick says:

    Okay , I just re-watched the Cullum- Reis fight and I was wrong about the guy not having world class jiu jitsu skill. Just because he didn’t submit Cullum does not make the guy bad or boring. Reis threw the everything he had at Cullum when they were on the ground. Cullum defense while on his back was off the charts.He transitioned out of every dominant position Reis put him in. Reis mounted the guy atleast five times and Cullum just wiggled out and even reversed him a couple times.

    I will admit I wrote the guy off(Reis) after watching the Caraway fight and that was a big mistake. The guy is a physical specimen and his stamina is five times what it was in the Caraway fight. So with that being said, I apologize for passing judgement on the guy after my first time seeing him fight. Now my opinion on the guy is with a little work on his striking the sky’s the limit. The guy is still VERY young and only has six fights under his belt so he really has nowhere to go but up. You also have to really take your hat off to Abel Cullum for surviving that storm.

    Maybe we need to bring back those Toughman competitions so Reis can learn a little stand up game! 😉

  • Cathedron says:

    Basically I’d have to agree with everything you said. BUT… the only way I can see anyone competing directly with the UFC at this point is to either talk every other promotion into grouping together or get Bill Gates or Donald Trump to fund it without limits. And that’s not happening. Even though the UFC was the FIRST MMA promotion, it still spent ten years hemorraging millions under the Fertittas before becoming a viable business. Who else can afford that?

    Some will disagree, but I think at this point the current smaller promotions are just trying to do well enough to attract a buyout by the UFC. Except for one.

    When the dust settles, I think only Strikeforce will be a true contender to the UFC. They are doing things right. They never push too far. They know their limits. They keep it small and organized while they grow slowly and steadily. I don’t think anyone else has a prayer.

  • Imbecile says:

    I think one of the main problems is that people don’t really want to understand why the UFC has been successful. Since people don’t like the UFC or Dana White, or the hardcore fans don’t like how their little niche sport has become mainstream, they don’t bother to give credit where credit is due.

    It seems as though most analyses tend to credit the UFC’s place in the MMA market as simply a “right place, right time” phenomenon. This analysis centers around the idea that the UFC was the oldest brand name in the American MMA market, so when MMA became popular, fans naturally just associated MMA with the UFC name.

    The problem with this assumption is that it assumes the rise of MMA as an inevitability, and the UFC’s popularity as an after-effect of this rise in popularity for MMA as a whole. As if, had Affliction or EliteXC happened to have the good fortune to exist around this magical time somewhere between 2001 and 2005, they too would have ridden the shockwave of MMA’s explosion in popularity to their incredible success.

    This idea assumes that the UFC is successful because MMA has been successful. The truth is that MMA is successful because the UFC has succeeded in making it popular. Zuffa – Dana White and the Fertitta’s – spent their time and money essentially creating the fanfare for this sport. Despite what internet forum posters would have you believe, Zuffa didn’t just happen along while the internet grew this sport to the point of explosion. The hardcore internet fanbase certainly has a place in keeping the sport alive while it was going through the dark times, but they aren’t the ones that made this sport popular and successful. That credit goes to Zuffa. They spent the money. They did the groundwork. They made the UFC popular and profitable through their efforts. They grew the audience beyond these hardcores. Sure, the hardcore fans came along for the ride, but the small contingent of these people were never enough to make the sport popular. Zuffa made the sport popular, not the other way around. So it is nearly impossible for another MMA organization to come and separate the UFC’s popularity from MMA’s popularity here in America. They are one in the same.

    The chief failure of all of these other promotions that come along is that they don’t understand this dynamic. They try to steal the UFC’s market share without realizing that there isn’t much of an MMA audience outside of the audience that watches the UFC, because Zuffa BUILT that audience. It wasn’t there for Zuffa to win over from someone else. Zuffa created those viewers. Unless you are going to spend the time to create your own audience, then you are going to have to out-promote, out-advertise, and out-spend Zuffa by a significant margin to pull their home-grown audience away. It is hard to outspend a company like the UFC by a wide margin when you are making no money.

  • Imbecile says:

    I totally agree with most of your points Sam, but I think a few of them are very hard to put into practice. That may be why they haven’t been followed, and perhaps why it is so hard to be successful in this business.

    – Take this one, for example – you say to hire a proven MMA promoter. But there simply aren’t many around. Monte Cox and Scott Coker are about the only ones successful on a somewhat large regional level. M-1 hired Cox, and was gone just as fast as the other fly-by-night operations. The only proven, consistent promoter on a full national level is Zuffa – that is it!

    – On another point, one of the reasons why these start-up MMA organizations have too many “Chiefs” and not enough “Indians” is because the person at the top usually isn’t in a secure enough financial situation to handle things on their own. That means they have to add investors and partners, and these people all want a say on the operations of the company. That is hard to get around, because you can’t lure investors and then tell them to keep their hands off what you do with their money.

    – Another problem is the fact that UFC created this boom in MMA popularity and created their own audience. That means a late entry into the market is much more expensive now than when Zuffa first began their efforts to grow the UFC. That means you need to have a massive bankroll, as you correctly pointed out, Sam.

    A lot of people get excited when they hear names like Trump, Ayre, and Cuban getting involved because these are very wealthy, smart businessmen. However, very wealthy, smart businessmen didn’t get to be that way by throwing away money. Just because they are worth $2 billion doesn’t mean they are willing to light their cigars with $50 million in cash just for fun. Even at $50 million, that is probably severely underfunded at this stage in the game. The UFC spent $50 million trying to grow this sport with no real competitors. Compare that to the fact that Zuffa recently borrowed $350 million this year to help fund their international expansion. The stakes in this game have gone up with the sport’s popularity, and it now costs much more than Zuffa’s initial investment from 2001 – 2005. If these companies had the same forsight as Zuffa back then, then perhaps their road would be a little cheaper. But they weren’t willing to risk $50 million back then on something so untested. Zuffa was willing. Now, it will cost these competitors even more to compete, because Zuffa has raised the stakes of the game.

    All I have to say is that the UFC deserves the reward they are now getting. They invested in this sport when it was nothing. They put their fortunes at risk, and spent more time and money than anyone else was willing to do to cultivate an audience for MMA in North America. It will be hard for competitors to take that audience away, and I’m not sure they deserve to by simply riding on the UFC’s coattails. To even secure a place at #2, these organizations need to invest way more than I think they are willing put on the table.

  • Nightmare says:

    Caplan, why don’t you list WAMMA as one of your professional interests. That fact changes the people’s perspective of all your anti-UFC tripe.

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