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Caplan: Has the WEC’s time come and gone?

Regular readers of my work on this site and know that I’ve had a love affair with the WEC since it debuted on the VERSUS network.

The shows are well-paced, filled with action, and feature myriad rising stars. As far as an MMA promotion goes, it doesn’t get more exciting than the WEC.

However, the promotion’s recent decision to discontinue its welterweight division on the heels of its move late last year to disband its light heavyweight and middleweight divisions is a sign to me that the promotion’s concept has become obsolete. If the WEC is only going to feature weight classes not carried by the UFC, why not just transfer those weight classes to the UFC?

After the WEC was acquired by Zuffa, the reason why the company decided to maintain the promotion as a stand alone brand was so that it could try and block EliteXC from getting potential deals with HBO, VERSUS, and SHOWTIME.

HBO’s interest in MMA was only cursory and SHOWTIME cut a deal with ProElite instead of Zuffa after the premium cable network became upset that Zuffa yanked a UFC deal off the table and instead tried to push the WEC.

With HBO and SHOWTIME off the table, Zuffa cut a deal with VERSUS, a struggling, upstart basic cable sports channel owned and operated by Comcast. With VERSUS desperate for programming, marriage between the WEC and VERSUS has been solid.

However, if Zuffa’s primary object in funding the WEC was to hinder its competition, Zuffa learned the hard way after EliteXC ended up on CBS that you can only block so many deals. When one company folds, another one rises in its ashes. Case and point: ESPN is putting its toe into the shallow end of the MMA pool with the planned launch of the Bellator Fighting Championships in April.

The creation of Bellator is another in a long line of examples of how running a promotion just to stop other groups from launching is a flawed strategy. That’s because even in a soft economy the demand for MMA by television networks will always be greater than Zuffa’s ability to supply. The bottom line is that a network can never have too much inexpensive programming that appeals to males between the ages 18-34.

Unable to prevent new companies from launching, Zuffa’s only motivation for operating the WEC should be to make money. Publicly, the company has said that the WEC is profitable but if it truly is, the profit is only marginal — at best. The WEC is promoting more and more shows outside of the tiny “Joint” at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas and doing bigger houses in markets such as San Diego, Sacramento, Albuquerque, and South Florida.

But while gate revenue is up but pay-per-view revenue is non-existent. The WEC no doubt receives solid revenue from sponsors such as Bud Lite and also generates income through its deal with VERSUS. However, everything comes back to pay-per-view. There is no bigger revenue driver than PPV and while the WEC is a hardcore fan’s dream it doesn’t have the widespread appeal needed to draw major buys on PPV.

Personally, I’d be more than willing to pay $34.95 if it means I could get a chance to watch all 9-10 bouts on a WEC show in a commercial free package. I’m sure many readers of this site feel the same way but we’re in the minority. The bottom line is that Joe Casual Fan isn’t likely to buy a WEC PPV when he is unfamiliar with the vast majority of their fighter roster.

Aside from Miguel Torres and Urijah Faber, the WEC doesn’t have any legitimate draws. And without a reality television vehicle such as The Ultimate Fighter or the benefit of a television partner as strong as Spike TV, the promotion’s ability of building mainstream stars is severely hindered.

The strength of VERSUS, or lack thereof, is an issue that could also be too much to overcome. If you talk to the WEC they will tell you that the channel is backed by cable leader Comcast and available in over 85 million homes. That is indeed correct. However, many cable and satellite providers place VERSUS on a premium sports tier and the channel is not anywhere near as accessible as Spike. Not to mention, just how many people who have VERSUS available to them actually take the time to watch it?

VERSUS remains a lowly rated network that has not succeeded in developing new properties that will allow it to experience an exponential increase in ratings. And as such, the WEC is suffering as a result. One look at a WEC ratings growth chart on Bloody Elbow shows limited growth.

The first fight between Faber and Jens Pulver at WEC 34 on June 1 was promoted brilliantly and did a tremendous rating. However, when the WEC returned in August without Faber, the ratings went from 1.540 million viewers to just 423,000 viewers for WEC 35. And the last three WECs have only shown a small amount of growth, from 497,000 viewers for WEC 36; to 671,000 viewers for WEC 37; to 700,000 viewers for WEC 38. Some growth is better than no growth but keep in mind that WECs 36 and 38 both featured Faber.

The manner in which VERSUS is promoting the WEC also isn’t conducive to building new stars. While the quick pace of the shows is something that I am very appreciative of, only allowing main eventers to have entrances isn’t going to help up-and-comers like Jose Aldo and Wagnney Fabiano standout and gain name recognition. While I love the fact that the WEC is almost all about the fights the question is whether that’s good for long-term business? Many of MMA’s new generation of fans are converted wrestling fans and have been conditioned to believe that if a combatant doesn’t warrant an entrance, he must not be worth emotionally investing in.

VERSUS’ handling of WEC 38 also did the promotion no favors. Instead of giving the card a direct lead-in following the NHL All-Star game, the network inexplicably decided to sandwich an episode of the half-hour highlight program “Sports Soup” between the two live events. The end result was an uncertain start time that couldn’t have helped ratings.

As I’ve written before, the WEC needs a stronger television partner than VERSUS. The promotion’s model would be a perfect fit for ESPN but Bellator likely has the inside track at being the first MMA event televised on ESPN or ESPN2 based on its deal with Deportes.

Zuffa doesn’t like to do anything small so how long will it remain satisfied with the modest growth being generated by the WEC? Before you accuse me of committing blasphemy, I am not suggesting that Zuffa abandon the featherweight and bantamweight classes. Quite the contrary, as I believe fighters such as Faber, Torres, Aldo, Fabiano, Brian Bowles, Leonard Garcia, Jeff Curran, Mike Brown, and a host of others have proven that 135 and 145 are perhaps the two most exciting weight divisions in the sport.

I believe that fighters such as Faber and Torres deserve the opportunity to be featured on PPV and given the chance to earn higher paydays. With the UFC promoting more and more shows it could easily accommodate the addition of two new divisions. And I can’t help but wonder how much more the bantamweight and featherweight divisions would grow if the UFC adopted them. Certain fighters currently in the UFC lightweight division would no doubt likely be more open to dropping down since it wouldn’t no longer mean dropping out of the organization.

As great as the WEC has been, I think it’s a concept whose time has passed. It’s time for the UFC to usher in the bantamweight and featherweight movement and put their full promotional muscle behind it. As the WEC eliminates more and more weight classes, I get the feeling that Zuffa is already moving in that direction.

  • EdJ says:

    I also love the WEC, but what I would like to see is the UFC pull the feather and bantamweight divdisions into their PPV cards. I believe it can add depth to the PPV, and expose these very exciting divisions to many who have never seen them. Faber, Torres, MTB, Garcia, Bowles, and to some degree even Pulver are all good fighters and in the case of Faber and Torres, excellent draws. In addition, think of some of the potential matchups it could generate when some of the smaller UFC lightweights cut down to featherweight. Frankie Edgar is a perfect example – love to see him fight Faber. BJ Penn couldn’t be a two class champion at welterweight, so let him own the lights and cut down to feather. BJ Penn vs Urijah Faber? Yup, I’d watch it. By having these two other divisions added to UFC PPVs, you could just about guarantee at least two title fights (and definitely at least one) for every event while making the main card deeper and loaded with better fighters.

  • Gary Julius says:

    Great article, Sam. I, for one, would love to see the lower weight classes on PPV events. I just wonder if it will lead to less frequent title fights per weight class (with 7 weight classes instead of 5) and more good fights relegated to the non-televised portion of the card.

    Either way, it would be nice to see a couple more fights for each $44.95 I plunk down. I do agree that 135 and particularly 145 are two of the more exciting weight classes out there. Keep up the good work!

  • Mike says:

    WEC should be put on Spike. It would get much bigger ratings than it does on Versus which would raise the organization’s profile.

  • G-DUB says:

    Interesting article Sam and it does seem like logical path for Zuffa to consolidate the WEC into the UFC. It’ll just make PPVs and well as free cable shows more exciting to have a deeper talent base and more recognizable stars in the numerous UFC weight divisions ….. not to mention that a greater % of the PPVs would have at least 1 title fight.
    Glad you brought up that Sports Soup debacle as well. Talk about opportunities missed!!

  • Joseph says:

    Good post Sam.

  • kidneybeans says:

    As long as they don’t go to ppv I don’t care what the WEC does with their talent. Over a hundred dollars a month just to watch mma is not a direction I want to see the sport going.

  • JDamico23 says:

    Dont consolidate. Dana expressed interest in Gina Carano before, and im sure he knows if he can get women more into the sport that would mean more money for him. Why not slap a couple of weight classes up their for the women. Dana can sign Gina and Cyborg and have them battle, swoop up randys wife, shit…george lucas’ daughter fights MMA, sign her too. I think its time to see women on a better promotion than EXC, and there isnt a better platform for it than WEC

  • kidneybeans says:

    I could get on board with merging their show with UFC ppvs, though I like being able to watch those shows for free. Just as long as they don’t expect me to shell out any more for WEC ppv’s. I’m as much a hardcore mma fan as anyone but the cost is ridiculous already. I work and make a pretty good living but I can’t afford them all, as much as I’d like to see them all.

  • JDamico23 says:

    i also agree with kidney…the day it costs me 40 dollars on 3 separate occaisons a month to keep up with MMA, is the day im either on blogs asking where the free feed is, or the day i move to a less expensive hobby…then again, theres always PJ Whelihans =-)

  • Guy Gaduois says:

    Blending in the WEC to the UFC would give a greater capactiy for high quality monthly shows; the additional PPV draw is an unknown.

    I have only one begging request: Please retain the camera operators and the directors from WEC. The work on the WEC broadcasts by these technicians is absolutely head and shoulders above the rest of televised MMA. There is no better camera placement and work, editing and cutting than what the WEC broadcasts. I enjoy the technical presentation of the WEC much more than I have UFC or Affliction or HDNet’s various presentations.

    Please keep the guys on the cameras and in the booth, whatever else happens!

  • john in rockwall tx says:

    penn vs faber would be sick, i agree, and even sherk vs faber

  • HexRei says:

    I think the WEC is far from gone, it is basically now the UFC’s lighter weightclass little brother. It’s a good niche IMHO, and I think we will see rising stars coming from the new flyweight division as well as more stars in bantam and lightweight.

  • mindone says:

    yeah, fold the wec into the ufc but show more ufc on spike and vs,

  • Lethal says:

    If UFC merges WEC into UFC they should still continue doing the same basic amount of shows a year. You can still do 8-9 free cable Fight Night type of shows on Versus in addition to the amount already on Spike. And it just means that guys like Miguel Torres and Urijah Faber could be in main event or co-main event roles on UFC PPVs instead of headlining cards only on Versus.

    The WEC still has a LW division but you can easily just move guys like Cerrone, Varner, Roller, Henderson, McCullough, Palaszewski, Crunkilton, etc. into the UFC. Most of them would be just prelim fighters in UFC but if they do succeed in UFC theres more long term pay for them in UFC then in WEC. For example if you get Fight of the Night bonus on a UFC PPV depending on big the event is that’s like a $50,000-$65,000 bonus, when in WEC the most they’ve given out is like $7,500.

  • Nick says:

    i have been for them going the oppostie way and sending the lightweight division form UFC down to WEC and add the already mentioned flyweight and a woman’s division or 2 and you’d have a very healthy org. that would likely be much more profitable.

  • Nick says:

    wow my spelling is terrible :oS

  • Angry Mike says:

    I always maintained that WEC should be an org. where Zuffa developed new talent before bringing them into the UFC. AA or AAA baseball to UFC’s major league, if you will. Now that WEC has dropped its light heavy, middle and welter weight division, I question whether WEC is still viable. I suspect that Zuffa is slowly moving toward a consolidation with UFC. From the perspective of the fighters, those who make the cut will be better off in the UFC because the payout son the last WEC card were comparatively low, even for Faber.

  • JOe K. says:

    “The shows are well-paced”

    YEAH RIGHT!!!!!! You yourself said they inexplicably had an episode of sports soup sandwiched between an event. Their last event started 15 minutes late and ended almost 30 minutes late.

    All of the fights (with the exception of the title fight) were one rounders so if any of the other fights would have gone more than 2 rounds we would not get to see all of the main card fights (*see Cerrone/McCollough)

    The last 3 events have been garbage (in terms of pacing).

    Its unfortunate because the fights are almost always exciting, more so than the UFC. Its a shame that the pacing is so bad.

    I absolutly love the WEC but this pacing is moving me toward downloading it on the internet to get away from the excessive commercial breaks.

    I hope this article can help change the way things are headed. If I could contact them I would.

    Regarding your article I would happily pay for a WEC ppv. I love the lighter weights. The lighter the fighter generally the more action you get. I can’t wait to see the flyweights buzzing around!

  • JOe K. says:

    Just an FYI the last event had 10:34 seconds of televised fighting excluding the Main Event.

    If the main event was 20 minutes and the show ran 15 to twenty minutes over that means that for 135 minutes there was only 30 minutes of fighting.

  • CubanLinx69 says:

    good stuff

  • Austin says:

    Limited growth due to limited exposure.

  • Ryan says:

    Great Article. I think the UFC should definitley incorporate the lighter divisions. However, I feel like charging more for MMA could really hurt the bottom line. From what my friends and I have discerned, we are already at our breaking point as far as paying for MMA. Affliction shows are not shown at bars, thus we have to buy them no matter what. The 2 UFC events or so are setting us back $70 a month. That’s like 120 bucks a month total. I love MMA, but I just don’t think that the orgs can afford to charge more during down economic times.

  • ultmma says:

    Great Take. I haven’t heard anyone in the MMA take this angle or position before.

    And the WEC does not have to make the jump directly to PPV. If, the WEC and UFC merge than we are one step closer to maybe weekly Friday Night Cards live on Spike ( sure beats another rerun of CSI)

    Also, look at Satuday’s UFN card imagine as your main event you had Varner vs. Cerrone along with j-Lau vs. Stephens.

    Could of made of added Pulver vs. Faber to UFC 93 or 94. Zuffa can find homes for the 135 and 145 pound guys.

    Cards would be much more stacked, the fighters would get more exposure thru a wider TV outlet in Spike

    Looking for any draw backs in this??

  • DJ says:

    The only issue I have with this article is that the WEC keeps adding new divisions. Sure, they have cut a couple of weight-classes, but everytime they do that, they also add new ones.

  • meatloaf says:

    “Sure they have cut a couple off weight-classes, but everytime they do that, they also add new ones.”
    They’ve eliminated three weight classes and adding one.

  • nointention says:

    Honestly – Zuffa has played this card wrong. From the beginning the WEC SHOULD have been UFC-lite. It should have been where fighters try to show that they are worthy of being in the UFC. A minor league of sorts. There could be belts but they wouldn’t be worth much. Overall – they should have every division the UFC has and fight lower tiered fights. And when they string together a bunch of good wins they can ‘graduate’ to the UFC.

  • GetItOn says:

    The WEC is not going anywhere. : )


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