Negative Marketing

An edited version of this piece was published by Deadspin on 2/1/2014, here. Many thanks to Deadspin and Tim Marchman for their support.

 

 

Sometime late Saturday night two UFC champions with stellar records will defend their belts against legitimate challengers with probably not all that many people watching.

José Aldo and Renan “Barão” Pegado are 23-1 and 31-1 respectively. Both are undefeated in WEC and UFC fights. They’re both preternaturally athletic Cuisinart strikers that also happen to possess black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The cherry perched atop all of this is that the two of them are entertaining as hell and prone to unleash improbable kinetic destruction that ends with some Sports Center anchor trying to hastily pronounce their names during a top ten countdown. In his previous fight, Aldo noticed Chan Sung Jung’s shoulder pop out and started kicking the bejesus out of it. Barão last landed this spinning fabulousness on Eddie Wineland and then grooved. If you needed an added bonus, one of them is even fighting Urijah Faber, a one time WEC champion, perennial contender in two divisions and a borderline star in his own right.

There’s no obvious explanation for the relative lack of excitement regarding these fights. Except that the UFC is broken. The UFC, and MMA in general, are hopelessly busted in myriad ways, but this particular flaw concerns their ability to market a sport. Specifically, they don’t (or can’t, or won’t) market athletes or a sport. They market a loud, tacky, brutal spectacle fronted by an initialism logo and shouting bald men that don’t actually participate in any of the fighting. They sell a tremendously loud brand.

The UFC’s sole focus is selling the letters “U,” “F,” “C.” Through a combination of stubborn hubris and willful ignorance they push the organization above everything else, including the sport that it in theory promotes. They struggle to build characters and stars that don’t readily present themselves. They live in a universe of logic where the NBA, without extraordinarily high quality basketball, or the rivalry of clashing personalities in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or the transcendent talent of Michael Jordan, is simply successful because it is the NBA and it should just scream that it is the NBA at an excessive volume to continue being successful. They don’t realize that Lebron James is special as a hero and a villain and they don’t understand that Kevin Durant is sublime and that people will pay to watch sublime. Time and time again, in an awkward uncomfortable pattern, they’re willing to publicly bury even their biggest names, sometimes over petty or seemingly insignificant slights. They are convinced that the UFC in and of itself, drenched in nü-metal and machismo and cliches about warriors and oh my god so much yelling, is the alpha and omega star.

Zuffa, the Fertitta brothers and Dana White have done an impressive job doing what many thought was impossible. They bought a floundering organization in a struggling, controversial sport and they not only nursed it back to health, but spurred an impressive boom that has brought the sport to the cusp of legitimacy and mainstream acceptance. This is commendable. However, they’ve hit a plateau, and leveled off at a point that pro wrestling fans are intimately familiar with. They’ve reached a critical mass, at least in their largest markets, of fans who wholeheartedly embrace the dude-bro culture or love the sport enough to tolerate it regardless. There are only so many people who will watch regardless of who is fighting, or how well, simply in the hopes that two people who are lacking in strategic options but possessing an abundance of fortitude stand in the center of the cage and pound each other senseless. There are only so many hardcore aficionados and gamblers who will be sure to catch two C+ fighters on the bottom of the undercard, or increasingly, climbing up the main card, engaging in M-1 grappling and local Y boxing. There are certainly people who love Dana White, just as there are people who love or love to hate Vince McMahon, but there are far more people who would be more interested in the athletes; take note of how often the NFL unleashes Roger Goodell on us, howling and sweating and carny shilling.

If the UFC wants surpass that barrier and inundate the public at large, they need sports fans. They need casual people who aren’t even sports fans who won’t actively turn them off. They need to intrigue people who enjoy seeing the highest levels of physical competition executed by peak athletes. They need not only fans who turn in for the brutality, but in spite of it. They need stars that audiences will back like their local team sports. They need to highlight talent, and competition, and stories.

They need honesty. If every undercard journeyman is a stone cold, force of nature, killer assassin how do casual fans differentiate between several hundred ever rotating faces. If every shoddy fight between gassed-out gatekeepers is a clash of the titans, people are desensitized by the time you try to sell them a actual superfight. They need to show people doing shit they normally only see from Tony Jaa and Jason Statham, but in real time and to other resisting professional athletes, and convince them that this is the glory that you could potentially catch anytime you watch a card, but particularly when you watch a card filled with glorious sportsmen and women.

They need non-MMA sports media to take them seriously and in order to do that they need to stop acting like assholes to sports media. They need MMA media to be better and in order to do that they need to stop actively attracting assholes.

Nurturing or building or finding stars isn’t remotely an exact science. And you can’t create talent on demand. An environment where talent can thrive certainly helps. The more athletes that can train full time, with a top tier camp, the higher the overall level of execution and the more phenomenal athletes will rise to the top. This takes money, which is currently something the UFC is not interested in giving to its athletes in any considerable amount. It takes money that might entice more world class athletes to partake in a sport that involves having your brain rattle around the inside of your skull while someone tries to turn your elbow inside-out. An environment where (not technically) employees aren’t bullied and demeaned every time your president throws a tantrum and where fighters that have served you well, even if they didn’t wing bombs or hoist championship belts, are treated with loyalty and respect, might help too.

You can’t force fans to be interested in Aldo or Barão. What you can do is publicize them. Give them visibility. Elevate them like the champions that they are. Convince people that what you do is, in fact, a sport, and explain to people that Aldo and Barão are better at that sport than all but a tiny fraction of all the other human beings on the planet. Show fans clips of them kneeing other fighters in the face with impeccable timing and rhythm. There are so many of these clips. Publicize current opponents and other future opponents, so that when Ricardo Lamas wins four fights in a row against quality competition and shows up in a title fight, people don’t ask “Who?”

José Aldo and Renan Pegado are exceptional fighters with exceptional records who also happen to be consistently exciting. If you can’t sell athletes like this, who most certainly will not drop out of the sky into your lap every day, how can you sell the average MMA fighter? What can you sell besides a brand name?

 

 

Contacts welcome at HugeMantis on Twitter and Gmail.

4 comments to Negative Marketing

  • Binky Melnik

    Mantis, there are so many times I want to high-five you! I greatly enjoy your writing. (Your Fedor two-parter was delicious and delightful.)

    I wish Lorenzo would read this article and take heed. (Dana’s too pig-headed to absorb any idea that isn’t his.) If I had a dollar for every time I mentioned “UFC” and someone understood I meant “those fighters who hurt each other” while being unable to name a single one, I’d have a lot of dollars! For that matter, a lot of people ask me whether the UFC is “real,” as they seem to conflate it with the WWE. Sigh. So the UFC seems to have done a great job getting its initials known, and getting people to understand that it’s men battering each other, but that’s the extent of it. Thanks a lot! So I walk around saying I’m an MMA fan, or mentioning it in online profiles, and there’re people who assume I mean pro wrestling. (cringe) And yet it seems Dana prefers certain fighters over others as champs as they’re more marketable (ie, Anthony Pettis over Ben Henderson, or Cain Velasquez or Junior), yet when do we see the UFC actually marketing them?

    I long for the day when I won’t feel like an oddball fan, the lone female in a group watching the fights, but things simply aren’t improving. MMA has been stagnant, is stagnant, and will remain stagnant unless and until the UFC begins promoting its stars instead of itself.

    (And keep up the terrific work, Mantis; I enjoy your writing more than anything on Junkie or Elbow!)

  • HugeMantis

    Thank you very much. Maybe this isn’t possible given what we’re starting to learn about head injuries, and given the history of what we’ve seen so far, but I’d be beyond ecstatic if we could even get to a point where we spend more time being proud of the sport than embarrassed for it. Really appreciate that you’re reading, and thanks for the feedback.

  • specs

    I agree the UFC has a significant marketing problem, but this just reads as keyboard jockey posturing, throwing out vague criticism that lacks concrete examples to support it, then acting like a know-it-all when it comes to solving the problem of creating stars. You say they shouldn’t be hyping every fight, but then say they need to publicize future opponents. Which is it? With the uncertainties of booking fights, it’s never really a given who will be fighting for a belt in a few months. I mean, saying they need to publicize their champions? That’s more or less what they do, in every commercial. They used to try to build interest with the UFC primetime specials, but I think viewership for those has gone down dramatically as they’re much less visible? (didn’t bother checking for this slapdash comment on a random blog). The problem is that casual fans don’t give a damn about feats of athletic ability, what actually makes someone a star is something beyond that, something that isn’t easily manufactured. More often, people seem to be drawn to a fighter because of a narrative, and that’s been true for boxing as well. Neither Barao or Aldo have identifiable personalities outside the cage. Anyone who would be wowed what they do inside the cage is already watching. You more or less completely miss the point and show your total ignorance by thinking the solution is something so simple a blogger can come up with it, pounding away at his keyboard. The UFC can probably do a better job marketing itself. However, not all fighters are marketable. You can’t manufacture charisma. I don’t think there’s an easy solution. What made GSP a star? Certainly not the same thing that made guys like Chuck Liddell and BJ Penn stars.

    Figures deadspin would like this meaningless nerd self-loathing where you pretend the product is unsuccessful because it doesn’t quite jel with your sensibilities. It’s not really the UFC’s fault that it has a limited audience, and acting like it’s their fault that not everyon wants to watch is just stupid.

  • Dave

    The whole premise of your nerd loathing is flawed. Dana and Lorenzo took something that was broken and made it work. But that is as far as it will go – to work. MMA is a niche sport. You can’t fly to the moon by flapping your arms. And UFC will never become bigger than what it is. Two men or women trying to hurt each other in a cage. That will always limit their appeal to the general public. All sports are filled with drug addicts, domestic abusers, and monsters. Have you see the NFL, NBA, MLB, and soccer? So stop with your martyr complex with MMA. It is childish. Even at its peak, Pride relied on gimmick fights, fixed fights, and spectacle to draw. Very few fights and fighters are draws.

    As for UFC promoting is stars, they do. They took Ronda Rousey and shoved her down our throats. But you can’t promote stars that the public doesn’t want. And right now Aldo and Barao just don’t interest anyone outside of their native Brazil. If Barao wins more and learns some English and Aldo fights with less hesitance, than maybe they might reach Silva level. And it took him many years for that. Aldo fighting Pettis is the best thing for him.

    You didn’t offer anything but whine. Your expectations for MMA are totally unrealistic. It survives on the hardcore bloodlust fan. Not the nerd who loves the lie about noble gladiators. UFC is actually far exceeding what the niche sport is capable of. You should be praising them since a number of promotions like WSOF, Bellator, Titan FC, etc, now exist and survive because of them and the hardcore fan you mock. The alternative is the death of MMA.