Imagine if the NBA added 30 expansion teams over the next two years, and then sent out a favored reporter to lecture the public about how true fans should appreciate the diminished quality of play. This sounds impossibly stupid, and yet it's more or less what's happening in one increasingly dim corner of the sports world.
This Saturday, the UFC will run a card in Auckland, New Zealand, to be broadcast on their online subscription service. The main event will feature New Zealander James Te Huna, who's lost two straight, and Nate Marquardt, who's lost three straight; the rest of the card isn't much more inspiring.
Also this Saturday, the UFC will run a card in San Antonio, Texas, to be televised on Fox Sports 1. The main event will feature Jeremy Stephens, a featherweight with a 10-8 UFC record best known for once having been arrested the day before he had a scheduled bout, leading to thankfully failed negotiations in which promoter Dana White tried to convince the Hennepin County sheriff's office to let the guy out of jail just long enough for him to fight. The co-main event will feature Nicholas Musoke, a welterweight so obscure he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.
Including these two, the UFC has 24 events scheduled for the rest of this year, five more than they ran in all of 2009. The ever-increasing number of cards—and, more than that, the consequent decline in their quality as good preliminary bouts become iffy undercard bouts and passable undercard bouts become lousy main events—has been a problem for long enough that a lot of serious fans are just dead tired of hearing about it. (In 2011, when the promotion ran a mere 27 shows, I asked White if he wasn't running too many; he said the only problem was that they weren't running more, and apparently he meant it.) It's so bad by now, though, that the usual word for it, oversaturation, doesn't quite cut it. This is something more like hypersaturation.
You can tell this is a live issue because Kevin Iole—a Yahoo Sports writer and a thoroughly reliable guide to what the UFC would like people to think—felt compelled to go in hard earlier this week with an article titled "Why the UFC's saturation strategy makes perfect sense." The UFC's His argument is basically that hardcore fight fans should stop bitching, because the awful cards aren't meant for them, but for people who don't actually watch fights.
The dirty little secret here is that the seeming overload of shows the UFC is staging here, there and everywhere was not designed for the hardcore fan base. ... [T]he seeming glut of shows the UFC is staging will serve its purpose if it persuades some who watch infrequently or not at all to become casual fans who may, every now and then, buy a pay-per-view.
This is a strange argument only because it makes absolutely no sense. The only people who could possibly have any interest in a fight card headlined by James Te Huna and Nate Marquardt are UFC ultras, degenerate gamblers, and maybe curious New Zealanders. The method by which watching bad fights will turn members of this last group into people willing to pay money to see fights goes unexplained, but it's hinted at when Iole describes the prevailing thinking within the UFC: "all that people need to become fans is exposure to the sport on a regular basis."
Calling this magical thinking would be doing it a bit too much credit. When the sport enjoyed a surge of general interest in the mid- to late aughts, it had to do with compelling athletes and compelling fights. People didn't become fans because of some accidental exposure to the sport, as such; they became fans because they were exposed to rivalries like Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture, or because they saw an incredible highlight reel of Anderson Silva knockouts online, or because they heard that pro wrestler Brock Lesnar was going to try his hand at a real fight.
For a lot of reasons—the aging of a generation of stars, the promotion's habit of running down its own fighters, and bad luck, among others—the UFC, even though it runs some great shows from time to time, doesn't have those kinds of broadly compelling athletes or fights on offer right now. What it does have is its #brand, and a Rovellian faith in it—a belief that you can't run too many shows, that fighting is destined to be the biggest sport in the world, and that if you can get people to watch a UFC card, any card, you'll make some new fans.
That may have been true five years ago, when the #brand stood for cards featuring fighters people cared about in main events that mattered, with quality fights on the undercard. When it increasingly comes to stand for main events featuring non-contenders on losing streaks, though, or regional-level competitors in meaningless scraps, not so much. And when even the big cards feature a lot of detritus and headliners no one has ever heard of, they start to actively run old fans off, rather than make new ones, as even a cursory look at the promotion's pay-per-view performance of late makes pretty clear. Which is, after all, the point of the complaints that the UFC Iole is dismissing. This isn't so much about whether a promotional strategy of running thin and bad fight cards makes any sense in the abstract as it is about fight fans complaining about feeling ripped off when they're asked to pay $60 for a card featuring maybe one good fight. You'd figure that Iole—a boxing writer, once upon a time—would know all about that.
Iole would surely counter that even if this is true, none of it matters: Running terrible cards featuring faceless, generic fighters is to the benefit of the marketing company that is the sport's leading promoter, so the tradeoff between good cards and boring ones is one "that most true fans would gladly make," and anyway no one's forcing anyone to watch. ("Consumers have choices when spending their entertainment dollars," as he puts it.)
This is a strange thing, in the way it asks fans to value the interests of the businessmen who own the UFC more than their own interests as spectators. It's even stranger than that in how utterly anachronistic it is.
One of the minor pleasures of being a fight fan is seeing the UFC reenact the development of any major sport as if captured by time-lapse photography. It's born; it struggles; it captures public interest; and now, it reaches beyond its grasp. The actual sport, as such, has grown incredibly quickly, so that the best fights the UFC can now offer are as far beyond what they could promote a decade or so ago as an early '80s Celtics vs. Lakers game was beyond some slow and erratic early '60s NBA contest. The infrastructure around it—the promoters, the fawning press, and so on—has meanwhile grown in real time, slowly and painfully. It will all come together at some point. In the meantime, fans will talk about how they want to see good fights, and various people with stakes in the game will tell them to pipe down and pay up, and it will all continue to be too stupid to be true.