This Saturday brings the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to Toronto for the first time in the competition’s history. Upping the ante is the organization’s statement that the audience attending UFC 129, held in the capacity-55,000 Rogers Centre, will be “the largest crowd in UFC history.”
Despite arriving late to the UFC game in terms of live spectacle, Canada has always been at the forefront of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), producing top talent like welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and featherweight contender Mark Hominick. Our country has also set previous UFC attendance records, in Montreal (UFC’s Canadian debut, in 2009) and Vancouver (2010), which suggests we’re nothing short of rabid for the stuff. And, less prominently, we have The Fight Network (FN), a specialty TV channel dedicated to combat sports, launched in 2005.
Last December, former Canwest CEO Leonard Asper decided to invest in FN, promising to recapitalize a money-sieve of a failing channel. Asper had caught wind of MMA’s numbers, and wanted in. Addressing a packed media scrum at The Ballroom, a Toronto resto-bar that held the FN reboot party this past Wednesday, Asper cited Canwest’s “greatest success” as the management of branded television networks, “and that’s why I really like The Fight Network!” In short, he intends to recreate the success he enjoyed with Home & Garden Network, Food Network and History Channel.
Proponents and fans of MMA — Asper’s target viewers — are being viewed with increasing measures of accommodation and ire by Canadians, depending on individual perceptions of what is commonly accepted as ‘bloodsport.’ Undeniable, though, are the massive profits generated by the emerging sport, which surely helped MMA to become legal in Ontario (it has already been sanctioned across other provinces), as well as land on Asper’s radar.
UFC is the dominant monopoly in MMA, controlling virtually all the top athletes. While there are whispers in some circles about anti-trust intervention by the Federal Government (similar to the Feds breaking the IBC’s boxing monopoly in the 1950s), the outright lack of competing MMA promotions means the UFC can do absolutely anything it wants to. Anything, it seems, except obtain a fair price for network television exposure: which is why UFC chases the significantly larger profits of the pay-per-view (PPV) crowd that is partially responsible for the general decline of boxing audiences.
The few UFC shows that aren’t on pay-per-view have sold their rights to Rogers Sportsnet. This leaves Asper with… no UFC fights. He will have access to UFC-controlled programming, but broadcast rights only to smaller MMA shows — boxing and other niche programming related to combat sports — in order to build a sustainable subscriber base for FN.
“They spent money on the wrong things,” says Asper on FN’s decline. He adds that his plan is “to go after the best programming that’s available.” Great soundbite, but not exactly a revolutionary strategy — and ‘available’ is the key word. Asper’s new vision for FN will need to include the right boxing matches (good ones that don’t tend to air on PPV), as well as mid-tier MMA promotions with exciting cards, and interesting reality shows like The Contender. To that last example, Asper says that reality programming costs crest $200,000/episode, which means he’s “got to find the right partners. There’s a couple [of shows] we can create, and a couple we can definitely buy.” He declined to name the latter; a fair-enough close-to-the-vest play.
Despite FN’s investment in gaining recognition and acceptance for MMA through news, its website, and content syndicated on FoxSports.com, the UFC has always excelled at crushing any hint of competition. Lawsuits, issuing threats to scare away potential sponsors, and a more-effective-than-one-would-think-possible attitude of smug entitlement — the UFC has always beaten the competition at their own game in every potential business venture. Consider just the following two examples: video games (the UFC game released through THQ crushed EA Sports’ MMA title) and magazines (never mind other MMA-themed magazines — the UFC magazine claims to outsell Esquire at the newsstand). The worst news for Asper is that UFC is considering its own dedicated channel. FN will have to be skilful in negotiating the labyrinth of “investing in the right things” while avoiding the Minotaur that is the UFC.
UFC continues to draw record profits, including an estimated $11 million live gate for UFC 129 alone. Still, the base guarantee for top-drawing UFC fighters like Georges St-Pierre and former WWE star-turned-UFC-fighter Brock Lesnar is a mere $400,000. While the top stars also get a cut of the PPV, an ESPN magazine estimate of Lesnar’s annual salary, released this month, rings in at an underwhelming $5.3 million. On the same survey, boxing superstar Manny Paquiao is said to clear $32 million. The math is crystal clear: the UFC machine excels at serving itself the largest slice of pie, leaving crumbs for everyone else. Including its top-tier athletes.
The best-case scenario for the new FN? In the short term, it could indeed become a respectable, potentially successful, source for impartial news about developments in MMA. As for the long term, the question is whether Asper will have to play by the UFC’s often-arbitrary rules simply to obtain access. News filtered through the UFC Commissars will rightly strike viewers as tainted and FN could, once again, find itself between the hammer and anvil of business forces.
Let’s root for a Canadian success story, though. Let’s hope Asper does come up with a canny plan to fight back, unlike the previous incarnation of FN that was content to simply survive in the brutal business of televised sport. For the time being, we’ll be watching.