Promotional Malpractice: UFC 224, Dilution, and Cash Grabs

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UFC Women's Bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes
UFC Women's Bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

UFC 224 sees the first meeting of an openly gay champion against an also openly gay title challenger — yet is has been getting little to no promotion. After nearly two years since their purchase of the UFC, it’s safe to say that WME doesn’t know what they’re doing, and it’s time to start acting like it.

UFC 224: Nunes vs Pennington arrives this weekend with little to no buzz. It isn’t exactly the best card, but it’s the card they made, and the promotion should at least do the bare minimum. It’s another example of the company’s inability to promote things that aren’t pretty, white, or blonde. And if they’re already assuming that UFC 224 will perform poorly, why put Mackenzie Dern behind a paywall on an under-performing main card? The smarter move would be to put her on the FS1 prelims where she would have a bigger audience.

Even though UFC 224 only has two main card fights worth paying attention to, it’s arguably the easiest card to promote that isn’t related to Diaz, GSP, or McGregor. It’s the first time that two out members of the LGBTQ community will be fighting for a major MMA title. Amanda Nunes and Raquel Pennington also met their partners through the sport, so there’s plenty of story there. On top of all of that, we’re a few weeks away from Pride Month. Most companies would kill for an easy sell like this. But there was no appearances on Ellen, no effort to work with outlets like Out Magazine, or to do something as simple as flooding the gay clubs across the country with UFC 224 posters.

Earlier in the week, the UFC announced their streaming deal with ESPN. Instead of adding value to their existing Fight Pass service, they decided to devalue their overall product by spreading it around to multiple outlets. When Fight Pass was announced, most people thought the company would have the common sense to eventually replicate WWE Network and offer all PPVs for free or at a deep discount.

If you’re a hardcore combat sports fan, Fight Pass is a good value overall. But as with anything, it’s not the hardcore fan base the keeps things afloat. The UFC never created an incentive to pull in more casual fans to the service, and still insist on producing reality shows no one watches. So now ESPN’s streaming service gets most of the Fight Pass offerings on the cheap for $5 a month. And that’s not a separate cost for the UFC content, that’s for the entire ESPN+ subscription. This is like when they loaned McGregor to Mayweather in hopes of some giant payoff, when they would have made more money having him fight in the octagon two or three times that year.

The only way the ESPN+ deal makes sense is if WME somehow secured ad revenue for the entire app and not just their products. Also, the number of PPV cards isn’t the issue. Their busiest PPV year was during the Spike era. The number of Fight Nights is what waters down their PPV cards.

This week also had rumors of a GSP and Nate Diaz bout that no one has asked for. If the intent is to put GSP against Khabib or McGregor, they should just make that fight. And because of McGregor’s legal problems, no one really knows if he’ll be able to fight in the US this year anyway, even though UFC President Dana White claims McGregor and Khabib will happen in the US.

And speaking of Nate Diaz: he has turned down every fight that isn’t McGregor since their second bout. But Yair Rodriguez, who is coming off a loss to Frankie Edgar in a fight that should have never been made, was just cut for turning down an August bout with Zabit Magomedsharipov. So an up and coming fighter is thrown into a title contender fight after he beats a shot B.J. Penn, loses, and wants an extended break and favorable match up upon his return. Sounds pretty reasonable considering they wanted to use him to break into the Mexican market. According to Dana White’s own statement (to the L.A. Times), this was only the second fight that Rodriguez rejected. Instead of addressing the bungled the development of a talented young fighter, the promotion instead lashed out in the most childish way possible. And lets not forget that McGregor still hasn’t been punished by the company for the trouble he caused at UFC 223.

These events are just the most recent in a long line of examples of the mismanagement of the UFC in the WME era. Zuffa is guilty of many of the same crimes, but actually had the names and made moves that allowed them to get by. It’s time for media and the fans stop treating cash grab match ups as a best available option. The best available option is a comprehensive overhaul, not short term gains. That includes eliminating exclusive contracts for most of the fighters outside of the top 25 and decreasing the number of Fight Night cards. Sorry if some people feel that Nunes isn’t the easiest to promote, but she’s one of the champions and WME needs to do their job. Remember how much of a push Rose Namajunas was getting prior to the haircut? Or how about the fact that Demetrious Johnson has a loyal gaming following, but WME won’t throw him any E League money or promotion? Rose, DJ, and Tyron Woodley are excellent representatives for the sport and easy to promote. And all three do plenty of things outside of the cage to promote themselves, but the UFC can’t even bless them with a simple retweet. And it’s time for all fighters to actually care about the treatment of the roster. Keeping your head down and hoping you get your chance at a big check isn’t going to improve your life or the sport.

Be sure to check out Pro MMA Radio with Larry Pepe, who inspired the title for this piece.

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