UFC 2014: Too Much of a Good Thing?
NOV 24, 2013 3:44p ET
How much is too much?
That's the question the UFC is going to battle starting today and throughout the next year, as it was announced on Thursday in New York City that the company would expand their schedule from 33 events in 2013 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 shows in 2014.
As much as that sounds steep, it's a 10-event reduction from the number UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta announced in error, which would have meant more fight nights than there are weeks in the year.
Just five years ago, the UFC held 20 events. Now, they're set to become an almost weekly fixture on the sporting landscape, a situation you would think would be celebrated by fight fans, but the initial reaction to Thursday's news was not one of grand excitement. Instead, the announcement was largely met with groans and complaints from a fan base and fight community that already feels there are too many events and not enough big name talents to fill them.
There is very little time to catch your breath and get excited about the next UFC event any more - as soon as one is done, the next one is no more than two weeks away, with another coming 10-14 days after that. The anticipation that used to make UFC pay-per-view events and televised fight cards must-see attractions has been replaced by the reality that another event is right around the corner, so missing this one (and maybe the next one) isn't a big deal.
The UFC is one of few sports leagues that operates without a real off-season - there is no two or three month hiatus where fighters heal up, fans go without, and you start counting down to the day the Bruce Buffer once again steps into the Octagon and announces that "It's TIME!"
Events blend into one another, with the smaller shows getting pushed to the background as pay-per-view events and FOX shows garner the lion's share of the marketing and promotions efforts and coverage in the media. While that makes business sense, it also leads to situations where rising stars and potential championship contenders are shuffled into the shadows, left competing on events that get overlooked or dismissed altogether because the depth of the card isn't great and there is a 'more important' event right around the corner.
We saw this happen last year with current UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, who had his breakout performance in the Octagon tucked away on Fuel TV, leading to numerous pundits suggesting that the under-exposed up-and-comer wasn't a big enough star to share the cage with the legendary Anderson Silva.
Those types of situations are only bound to increase next year, as more Fight Night events are added to the schedule, both domestically and internationally.
And therein lies another issue.
While the number of pay-per-views and FOX shows will remain static at 13 and 4 respectively heading into next year, the increase will come from bringing more Fight Night events to Brazil (from 7 in 2013 to a reported 13 in 2014) and international markets where the UFC is focusing their expansion efforts, like Asia and Europe.
For many casual fans, these are fairly disposable events because the majority of the fight card consists of athletes they're unfamiliar with and who compete almost exclusively on those events. Save for the Top 10 names competing in the top two fights on the marquee, there aren't a lot of recognizable talents drawing people in on a Wednesday or Saturday night.
Now hardcore fans are starting to bristle at the structure of events and crowded schedule as well. Even for those passionately committed to following the sport, asking them to commit more than half of their Saturday nights and a handful of Wednesday evenings to UFC events is asking a lot.
UFC President Dana White has never been fond of hearing complaints about over-saturation or watered down fight cards - one of his all-time best Dana-isms is "Don't like it? Don't watch!" which was most prevalent during the injury-riddled summer of 2012 when questions and comments about the depth and quality of events were numerous.
This past September when those same subjects were broached as the UFC descended upon Indianapolis, White countered with the following (from the Indianapolis Star):
"People have been asking me that question forever, if we're worried about over-saturation. But people are going to show up Wednesday in Indianapolis and they're going to be so glad when they leave at the end of the night. People watching on Fox Sports 1 will say same thing. One thing our product is, is consistent. You are going to get what you pay for every night."
As much as people did turn up and enjoy an entertaining night of fights on that particular Wednesday evening - and several other Wednesdays and Saturdays in various locales - attendance figures, television ratings, and pay-per-view buyrates are consistently lower now than a couple years ago, and adding more events to the calendar doesn't seem like a smart way to counter that decline.
The NFL is the biggest sports league in North America, and as much as people are fanatical about their favorite team and those 17 weeks from September to December where their team are going to be on the field, even they have balked at the inclusion of two more games and shifting the schedule around to accommodate more non-Sunday games.
This year's Thursday night match-ups have been criticized for being sloppy contests where neither team is at their best; the short turnaround creating issues with player availability and preparation time, leading to lower scores and less than thrilling contests for the most part.
And - let's be honest - it's hard to block out time for two or three games on Sundays, Monday Night Football, and a Thursday nighter as well.
While baseball is an every day event from Opening Day until the playoffs begin, it too is very different in its construction and delivery than the UFC.
For one thing, stars play the vast majority of games, provided they don't get injured, so missing Wednesday's game doesn't mean you have to wait another four-to-six months before you get to see David Ortiz swing the bat again; he'll be right back out there tomorrow night.
The biggest names in the UFC compete between two and four times a year. With 45 events proposed for next year, that would mean the UFC needs 15 stars competing three times each to fill each main event with at least one marquee name. Given that even some of the dominant champions aren't considered bankable draws at this point, that sounds like a tall order.
As several people sarcastically put it on Twitter Thursday, 'UFC Fight Night: Pierce vs. Pyle' doesn't exactly sound like a must-see event, and while that is an exaggeration of the level of fighters that will be headlining the additional events added to the schedule, the point is clear - this is a star-driven sport, and the UFC only has a finite number of true stars capable of carrying shows.
One of the interesting angles to watch in all this will be how injuries continue to impact events and the roster as a whole.
White has spoken numerous times about the roster being bloated and that they are struggling to get fighters opportunities. While adding more events means more chances for athletes to compete, it also means more shows that can potentially be impacted by injuries.
In those situations, unsigned talent from outside the company is usually brought in somewhere along the line to fill a void, which not only further bloats the roster, but also lessens the perceived overall quality of the fight card. If the injury bug that ravaged line-ups two summers ago returns, there could be a slew of cards that are already considered 'average at best' that get downgraded as a result.
Casual fans aren't going to be compelled to tune into events loaded with fighters they donât know, and even hardcore fans are starting to bristle at the number of shows that feature only a handful of upper-tier talents. As those types of events become the norm, there is the potential for more of the audience to lose interest or simply decide to watch a select number of events that they deem to be the most important or stacked of the year.
In that regard, the UFC would become more like tennis than the major, mainstream sports it desires to be. There may be a tennis tournament just about every weekend, but most casual fans only tune in for the four majors, and even then, if the marquee names are eliminated early, ratings and interest wanes.
While there are surely hardcore tennis fans that are pumped up for every stop on the ATP Tour each year, chances are they too choose to pass on the odd event here and there, especially when names like Nadal, Murray, and Djokovic have been bounced from the competition. Wimbledon is still Wimbledon, but it's not the same if John Isner is facing Juan Martin Del Potro in the finals, and that combination is even less appealing on a random weekend in July at the Citi Open.
As much as some people want to believe you can never have too much of a good thing, we've seen how over-saturation can turn people off of something too many times to list.
While the UFC's expanded schedule for 2014 might lead to a greater presence internationally and a larger audience worldwide, it has the potential to turn events into 'take it or leave it' options in North America, where interest has already appeared to plateau.
The idea of a UFC event almost every weekend sounds great in theory, but now that it is on the very of becoming a reality, it feels like the organization that used to be a can't-miss attraction is starting to do too much.