SBJ/November 26-December 2, 2012/Opinion

UFC testing boundaries of integrity versus marketability

From time to time, most major sports organizations have tinkered with their sports’ rules to make them more entertaining for fans. Whether it was the institution of the shot clock in basketball, the shrinking of the strike zone in Major League Baseball, or the institution of the shootout in the NHL, the decision-makers for professional sports organizations understand that they are in the entertainment business, competing for entertainment dollars, and that their product needs to entertain in order to be viable.

Mixed martial arts, in the form of the UFC, is no different. In the late 1990s, the UFC reformed itself to allow for more regulation, leaving behind Rorion Gracie’s original vision of open-weight tournaments and minimalist rules. At the height of the reality TV craze, the UFC used “The Ultimate Fighter” to gain attention, culminating in the Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar fight that is routinely hailed as the UFC’s breakout moment. To this day, the UFC uses performance bonuses (“Knockout of the Night,” “Fight of the Night”) to promote entertaining bouts.

The UFC owes no apologies for these moves: The company abandoned a product with a very limited future in favor of what has become one of the fastest-growing sports on the planet. Recently, however, the UFC announced a decision that prompts the question, How much is too much?

Chael Sonnen (above) and Jon Jones, coaches on “The Ultimate Fighter,” will fight on April 27.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
UFC President Dana White announced in October that Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen will be the coaches for the 17th season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” a prelude to their April 27 bout for Jones’ UFC light heavyweight championship.

From a marketing standpoint, the pairing could be a masterstroke. The UFC’s reality show has delivered disappointing ratings in its first year on FX (it had been on Spike TV prior to this year), and while the show’s new Friday night time slot has been a major factor, it’s not the only one. FX will move “The Ultimate Fighter” to a weeknight in 2013, and the Jones-Sonnen pairing is expected to boost ratings.

Jones, meanwhile, has had his own issues. With many of the UFC’s top names retired or nearing retirement, the 25-year-old champion should be a marketer’s dream. Young, talented and blessed with an impressive array of skills, Jones has rocketed to the top of the sport, capturing the title less than three years after his pro debut, and he’s a natural top figure to help the UFC grow in the African-American market. In August, Jones became the first MMA fighter to sign a global sponsorship deal with Nike, an indication of his perceived marketing potential.

However, Jones’ actual marketability has been slow to materialize. The young champion hasn’t established himself as a pay-per-view draw, and his May 19 arrest on DUI charges rubbed fans the wrong way, contributing to an overall sentiment that Jones’ public persona is manufactured rather than genuine. Following the DUI embarrassment, Jones further damaged his credibility with UFC fans in August, just as Sonnen came into the picture.

Sonnen was the only fighter willing to step up on short notice when an injury to Dan Henderson left Jones without an opponent for UFC 151. Jones, however, refused the switch, leading to the UFC’s first cancellation of an event. While Sonnen taunted the champion, Jones moved on to defeat Vitor Belfort at UFC 152, injuring his elbow in the process. With injury rehab sidelining Jones until spring, the timing led the UFC to match Jones with Sonnen, on “The Ultimate Fighter” and in the octagon.

In this context, Sonnen is the perfect foil for Jones, as the loquacious Oregonian has evolved into one of the UFC’s most recognizable fighters. More important, Sonnen has a track record of helping an opponent rebuild his brand. When UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva was matched with Sonnen at UFC 117 two years ago, Silva’s marketability had suffered in the wake of several bizarre, disinterested performances, which left White threatening to cut him from the UFC. Sonnen, however, built up the rivalry in the media and challenged Silva in the cage, bringing out the best in one of the sport’s all-time greats. Since first encountering Sonnen, Silva has approached his fights with more gusto, cemented his reputation as an all-time great, and had his sponsorship deal with Nike elevated to the global level. Sonnen deserves much of the credit for that (not to mention the 1 million buys for their July rematch), and now he’s being tapped to help revitalize two brands: “Bones” Jones and “The Ultimate Fighter.”

The problem is that Sonnen, who has never won a UFC bout at light heavyweight, has done nothing to prove himself as a contender in the division. Until recently, White had said that Sonnen would not be allowed to talk his way into a title shot against Jones. Instead, Sonnen appears to have done exactly that, to benefit both Jones and “The Ultimate Fighter,” while more qualified contenders wait behind him. Pundits of the fight game complain that the integrity of the sport has clearly taken a back seat to the marketing of the sport, and they’re right. However, in this particular instance, that might be OK.

If Sonnen’s fast track to an unearned title shot is a one-time deal, and if it helps elevate Jones into a top draw and bring in bigger ratings for “The Ultimate Fighter,” then it would be hard to say that the move wasn’t worthwhile. However, if more title shots are handed out based more on marketability than merit, there could be trouble ahead.

Elliot Olshansky (eolshansky1782@gmail.com) is a second-year MBA student at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business and has written about mixed martial arts for SI.com, UFC.com and UltimateFighter.com.

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