MMA has a long-standing paradox. A monopoly of power would be a good thing in the sense that fans would have true world champions to celebrate. Yet it could be a bad thing in the sense that fighters could have little leverage over their pay and treatment, and MMA-related businesses could be pushed around.
And so the MMA community has had mixed reactions to the news that Zuffa, the corporation that has built the UFC into the world’s dominant MMA brand, has bought Strikeforce, the No. 2 MMA promotion in the world.
The deal doesn’t quite turn the UFC into the NFL of its sport — the world still has hundreds of promoters of varying sizes. It’s basically the NBA — clearly the best in the world, though other countries have a few good players as well. On a given day, a champion elsewhere might beat the NBA’s best (see Barcelona vs. Los Angeles, 2010), but on the whole, the NBA is the destination for the world’s best.
It’s an imperfect analogy because other major sports have teams that must compete to sign players. Major League Soccer, with its single-entity structure, is an exception but faces much more competition from overseas teams and leagues.
Whatever the structure of the league, most dominant U.S. sports brands have faced legal action and labor strife. The NHL missed a whole season. Congress uses baseball’s antitrust exemption as an excuse to stick its nose in the commissioner’s business. MLS faced a player lawsuit in its early days and went down to the wire to avoid a work stoppage last season. The NFL … well, I’ll assume most people follow the news at least in passing.
I asked about this prospect in yesterday’s conference call. The UFC’s Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White were confident that the future would be a smooth one, pointing to all the other promoters out there who could offer fighters another option.
And at the lower end of the talent pool, where most fans would worry most about fighters’ welfare, that’s surely true. The higher end is less of a concern. The UFC didn’t get where it is by short-changing its top talent, and it won’t stay there by starting now.
But near-monopoly power over the elite levels of the sport will ensure that the UFC will have to be careful. Any predatory practice could trigger an opportunity for a salivating law firm.
So the deal could create the best possible scenario. Fans could have undisputed world champions and a clear hierarchy of talent in each weight class. The pressure on the UFC to treat fighters, sponsors, broadcasters and fans appropriately will come not from a would-be competitor of Strikeforce’s stature but from watchful lawyers.
Over the past five years, the UFC has gone from controlling perhaps 50-60 percent of the world’s MMA market to roughly 90 percent of it. Japan’s once-dominant Pride declined and was sold to the UFC, and the promotions that sprang up in its wake have been teetering since inception. A long line of would-be challengers in North America, ranging from the outright hostile (EliteXC) to the benign but successful (Strikeforce), has either been beaten by the UFC or joined them.
The story of the next five years: How will the UFC manage its near-absolute dominance?