Ten years ago this week, MMATorch contributor Mike Roe wrote an editorial proposing that UFC was more effectively creating new stars with its TV shows than WWE was with its TV shows, even though WWE has more control over who gets pushed via scripting wins and losses. This was published Sept. 1, 2006.
UFC has utilized television, most notably The Ultimate Fighter series, to take their pay-per-view buyrates to a new level time and time again. It’s getting to the point where it’s becoming an embarrassment for WWE, the supposed leader in marketing and creating stars. There are several key factors that make UFC’s television so effective in getting its viewers to pay to watch more UFC action on pay-per-view.
Quality, not quantity
The UFC has one key show that has done the most to draw in fans, the Ultimate Fighter. It’s one hour, once a week, and it doesn’t even run year round. It’s a great way to build new fans, because in every episode, they give you the background on at least two characters, so it’s easy to follow while still being interesting for long time fans. Being a reality show, it can also draw from outside of the usual base that might think they’d be interested in mixed martial arts.
They have one regular show that is on more frequently, even when the Ultimate Fighter isn’t, called UFC Unleashed, although they only produce thirteen original episodes per year. I think it’s probably the weak link in the chain of their television, but it still does a decent job getting people psyched up about the UFC product. It shows fans matches from various UFC live events that sometimes have not have been shown on television previously and gives them a taste of what they’re missing out on if they don’t order the pay-per-views.
Before pay-per-views, they do two specials, All Access and a UFC Countdown show, which, for those who watch them, are incredibly effective in getting people to watch the pay-per-views. All Access is only half an hour, but it can take a guy who you may not know much about if you’re not a hardcore fan and make him a star to whoever watches the show. It’s a half hour on one guy, and it makes you want to watch that man face whoever his opponent is. The countdown show is an hour of basically interviews and highlights, and focuses on whatever the big two marquee matches are.
WWE has five hours on television every week to build toward pay-per-views, but they clearly have no idea how to fill all that time and give the fans a bunch of meaningless filler. The countdown shows are only on about once a month, but they don’t even bother trying to sell you on the undercard; they just spend a half hour on each of the two big matches, knowing that those matches are what’s going to draw and make the fans pay to see what UFC is selling.
This is another reason that the Ultimate Fighter is a real stroke of genius. In the first three seasons, they took fighters that were largely unknown outside of the super hardcore fans, and some that even those fans didn’t know much about, and, week by week, focused on a couple guys and made them into recognizable names. They don’t try to build dozens of guys on every show. Instead, they just effectively build up a couple guys and then let you watch them fight. It instantly establishes one guy and gives him some credibility and sets up a potential rematch.
They’ve also done a nice job using their Ultimate Fight Night specials to build stars, putting guys they want to build around in showcase matches. They’ll often use some of the lower level Ultimate Fighter guys as jobbers to the non-Ultimate Fighter fighters, or use a low level fighter who hasn’t been on TUF to build up a TUF contestant. They’ve also effectively used their big stars to help make new stars, with one of the most notable examples being when Rich Franklin beat Ken Shamrock on an Ultimate Fight Night.
While MMA is real, UFC definitely makes fights designed to end with certain wins. Sometimes they get surprised by the guy they want to win not getting it done, such as we’ve seen with the career of Stephan Bonnar since being runner-up in the first Ultimate Fighter, but they’ve generally made the most of it when things don’t go their way and roll with the punches. They do a good job building up the credibility of both guys, even if one guy is the clear favorite, because they know that it means far more to beat someone who at least has some credibility than beating a complete nobody.
The editors of UFC’s programs are absolute geniuses. The editors are really storytellers. The Ultimate Fighter is the best example of this, as they manage to take a few days of footage and edit it into a compelling one hour program that tells a story and makes stars. One of the key parts of why both this and the countdown shows work is the extensive interviews they do. They take the best clips from the interviews and splice them into the shows to tell the story they want to tell.
Pro wrestling could take a real lesson from this, as instead of throwing guys out on TV and expecting them to carry promos all the time, let them do sitdown interviews where you can take the best pieces that make the person seem as interesting and charismatic as possible. You have them practice backstage and at live events, but when it comes to TV, you let the guys who know what they’re doing cut the promos and take those with less experience and use pretapes whenever possible.
The power of imagination
This is perhaps the most important piece in the whole puzzle. With the nature of fighting, due largely to injuries, fighters don’t fight very often. It makes the times that the big stars do fight seem special. In pro wrestling, you usually see the big stars fight each other week after week after week, and often get some form of whatever the pay-per-view match is before it happens, and then seen rematches on free TV. It makes pay-per-views feel like a waste of time and nothing special in the big picture. Instead, UFC shows you highlights of what the guys have done before, does great interviews that get you excited, and lets your imagination do the work to hype you up for how exciting the fight is going to be.
UFC television is the state of the art in promoting, and other companies in the pay-per-view promotion business could take a lot of lessons from the way UFC is doing things. They’ve taken the basics and used modern techniques to kick it up a notch. You don’t need a million things going on at once like some wrestling companies seem to think, but instead just keep it focused on key points and key people.
Some in the wrestling world would argue that MMA has a huge advantage because the fights are legitimate fights, but you can also make the argument that wrestling has an advantage because they do have the ability to choreograph their matches to make them more entertaining and to go in a defined direction that can’t be thrown off by the wrong guy winning.
In any case, the time for making excuses is over, and UFC is leading the way in showing other companies in wrestling and MMA how to make fans want to give over their money, and that’s what promotion is really all about.
(Email Mike Roe with feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.)