July 23, 2014

UFC at a crossroads

With many of his stars aging or hurt, UFC president Dana White must find a new generation of popular fighters.

One of Dana White's favorite sayings is, "Every day I wake up, there is crazy [expletive] I have to deal with."

It's the price one pays for the kind of success the UFC president has enjoyed in the last decade-plus. In a little more than 11 years, he's turned a company on the verge of bankruptcy into one estimated to be worth more than $2 billion.

His partner, casino mogul Lorenzo Fertitta, wouldn't assign a value to the UFC, but put it in stratospheric levels during a 2011 interview with the New York Times.

“I feel pretty comfortable saying we're the most valuable sports franchise on the planet, more than Manchester United, more than the New York Yankees, more than the Dallas Cowboys," Fertitta told the Times.

Even if Fertitta is not right, it's mind-boggling that he can even mention the UFC in the same sentence with those iconic sports franchises to a reporter from the New York Times and not be laughed out of the room.

What White has done in these last 11 years to lead that surge is as remarkable in its own way as what the late Steve Jobs did in masterminding Apple's rebound from near-extinction after his return to the then-troubled computer manufacturer in 1997.

But as White prepares to seriously promote UFC 152 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sept. 22, he must deal with a stark reality: His list of headline-worthy stars is shrinking rapidly.

Despite the UFC's multi-year deal with Fox, it is still a pay-per-view company first and foremost. It relies on its stars to sell tickets and pay-per-views and create job opportunities and prosperity for those down the card.

But as 2012 enters its homestretch, there is plenty for White to be concerned about.

His biggest draw, welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, hasn't fought in 16 months and won't be in the cage again until November. Nobody knows if he'll ever be the same as he was before his knee injury.

White's next biggest attraction, middleweight champion Anderson Silva, is 37 and has already been making noises about retirement.

And his emerging superstar, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, is embroiled in controversy and being blasted from all directions.

It's not easy to determine exactly what makes a fighter a pay-per-view star, but it is clear that it takes a star to sell a pay-per-view.

That's why you didn't hear flyweight contender Joseph Benavidez complaining too much when Jones was added to the UFC 152 card, pushing him out of main-event status. He knew having Jones atop the bill would create more interest and push more sales.

White has greatly expanded the sport's hard core fan base, and so the floor for sales is much higher than it was even five years ago.

But hardcore fans are only a small percentage of the overall audience. A successful pay-per-view comes as a result of convincing casual fans to buy.

In that sense, it's no different than the challenge facing President Obama or Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in winning the election. They don't have to worry about getting the votes from their base; they have to convince the undecided and those in the middle to support them.

White and Fertitta have to find a way to bring along fighters who will replace Silva and St-Pierre and help with that crossover appeal.

READ THE ENTIRE STORY BY KEVIN LOLE HERE!

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