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Should Jon Fitch be sacrificed for the good of UFC's entertainment business?

Jon Fitch needs to learn he's in the entertainment business or else.  He's been put on notice by Dana White.  (Wikimedia Commons)
Jon Fitch needs to learn he's in the entertainment business or else. He's been put on notice by Dana White. (Wikimedia Commons)

In what has been a slow news week, one of the most controversial subjects for discussion has been Dana White booking Jon Fitch against B.J. Penn at UFC 127 and the rumours that Dana is strongly considering cutting Fitch if he loses in a typically boring fight, despite having one of the best win loss records in UFC history.  S.C Michaelson of Watch Kalib Run did a good job last week of explaining the mentality behind Dana's lust to fire Fitch:

I have almost 100% certainty that the UFC would cut Jon Fitch after his next loss. You can't put him on the prelims, so he makes the main show "stinking it up". Not only that but he's killing all the prospects for GSP. And he won't even do what the UFC says and fight his own teammate in Josh Koscheck. Enter BJ Penn.

It's a win-win situation for the UFC. … If Penn wins, it allows the UFC the legal ability to cut their losses with Fitch and release him. … Penn's draw isn't going to be hurt by the loss, but it's certain that the inside circles of the UFC would be hoping that he win.

I understand the mentality too and see nothing wrong with it for deciding the fate of fighters on the cusp of deserving a UFC roster slot, but it's hard to defend cutting a fighter who is comfortably top five in the world in his weight class.  Does every decision by Dana, who supposedly has the sport’s and his fighters’ best interest at heart, have to be driven by self-interested, profit maximising motives seeking a quick and easy solution?  It should be up to him as the best promoter in the business to unlock the mystery of how to effectively book and promote Fitch to hide his weaknesses and accentuate his positives given his impressive string of victories, rather than selfishly jettisoning him at the first available opportunity and attempting to book him to fail.  It also should be up to him to lobby the commissions to encourage their referees to be more vigilant against fighter inactivity and timidity, so that boring fights are less likely to happen in the Octagon.  Indeed, Michaelson voiced concern that UFC would undermine the future credibility of the sport by continuing to cut talented fighters who end up in boring fights:

While personal personnel moves and vindictive bookings aren't as tangentially harmful as Joe Rogan's slur usage, their effects can be far greater. With each passing move, you lose credibility. Credibility with your hardcore fans and eventually credibility with casual fans and media. Imagine if UFC cuts were covered as closely as NFL cuts. Could you imagine if an exciting QB was cut from a team following a loss where he went 23-37 for 198 yards all short little slants and outs after several games of exciting winning gameplay? There would be an uproar. As we move towards mainstream appeal, we will get mainstream coverage and that means that things like this that aren't examined by the current MMA "media" won't be overlooked.

Dave Meltzer, who often gets unfair flack from hardcore MMA fans for his pro wrestling background, despite being so regularly on the ball about MMA business and booking, champions this mentality to an almost intransigent degree, which led to this unfortunate rant on the Thanksgiving edition of his Wrestling Observer Radio show:

At the end of the day this is a business, it's like you're saying is it a sport or entertainment, IT'S A BUSINESS, like the NBA, like the NFL, every one of them is a business. OK, it's business first, sport second, entertainment second, I don't know, but it's all the same thing, but at the end whether it's sport or entertainment, it is number one a business and if you think it's anything but a business and you're running it, you'll be out of business, that's a reality and anyone who doesn't understand that, doesn't understand the first thing about this industry. I don't want to hear from people who don't understand that it's a business first, I don't want to hear from anyone who says that because I just feel insulted that you don't understand the first thing.

The problem isn’t so much that Meltzer champions this mentality that leads to booking Fitch to fail and wanting to cut him ASAP, but that he tries to defend it by suggesting that all sports behave in such a manner with flimsy analogies that merely expose his lack of interest in and understanding of all non combat sports.  After the jump are a few posts by Meltzer on his message board that perfectly illustrate how he illogically defended his position using faulty examples from other sports when he was probed by his subscribers:

I was just out tonight with some friends from Stanford. they were talking about that if they'd have lost tonight and gone 10-2, they wouldn't go to a Bowl Game even though 8-4 teams go because aside from the top Bowls, the rest of the Bowls now pick on which team "travels best" (can bring alumni into town and buy a lot of tickets and spend a lot of money). Now they'll be high enough in the rankings that they can go to a major bowl even with the drawback of having the rep of not "traveling well."

I didn't bother to ask if ESPN still covered college football since that was proof it wasn't a real sport, and if people were mistaking it for pro wrestling.

I know that when I worked in soccer in the office, our goal was keeping the team alive. That meant live attendance. Winning was important, but keeping the team alive was a whole lot more important then our won-loss record. If our goals were in the other direction, we'd be retarded and also out of business.

But saying all that must mean that somehow college football and the old NASL were run by wrestling people and it ruined their sport or something.

 Being British I found the soccer talking point highly amusing given that the NASL has been dead for over 25 years and if he followed the world's most lucrative football league he'd realise how important winning is in that sport. A top English team fails to make the top four, they lose their Champions League revenue, slip further in the table, they miss out on the Europa cup, end up getting relegated, then there is a huge drop in their revenue next season. Just ask the once mighty Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, etc how having a terrible win loss record and ending up relegated worked out for their businesses.

In every sport guys like Fitch get cut before guys like Tito.

There's your answer. There are a bevy of reasons why, whether it's getting along with coaches, being talented in ways the coach doesn't care about, the nebulous not fitting into the team structure, guys get traded for fucking the wrong girl, getting bad pub, just aggravating people, or not having a fan base. Good guys get cut before dicks if they don't fit into the big picture goal of the team. If it's a team in a non-major sport, if you don't think one player having a following doesn't effect decisions in comparison to a player who has no following, then you don't have a clue.

People who use the comparison of pro wrestling only expose they know nothing about professional sports. Now, in some sports because of being at different levels of success, the winning of games, which is a priority, is influenced more than others. But major sports make salary cap decisions. If it's a sport where if one starting pitcher drew 60,000 on average and another drew 18,000 on average, that would absolutely play into decisions regarding who stays and who goes.

That college bowl analogy works and you guys who said it didn't missed the entire point. No, a bowl is a privilege not a right. And a spot in UFC is a privilege, not a right. Football teams play all season to get into Bowl games that are chosen partially based on who travels best and win-loss record (and to an extent, how good the team actually is). UFC fighters are chosen for big matches based on who people want to see fight, and winning fights influences it, but there are a lot of things influencing it.

This sports vs. entertainment vs. business stuff is based on people who have never worked in any sports business. It's like arguing wrestling vs. sports entertainment which is a stupid argument as well. The argument is what works and what doesn't work. It's something that changes. Ultimately, you have to give the fan a positive experience and more importantly, a storyline to bring them back. In the NFL, all the people in management talk about is storylines as far as what drives the business and they are the most solid organization because of their TV deal. For growth of the business, wins and losses is irrelevant because every game ends with a winner or loser. There's a great incentive to win, but UFC fighters also have a great incentive to win. But to the people who pay the freight, the networks, they want a game that people won't turn out of out of boredom in the third quarter and a game with a storyline that will get people to watch who are casual fans.

The NFL schedule is locked in place before the season starts. The TV schedule is greatly influenced by storylines, which is why you see the Vikings on prime time so much. It's influenced by who wins of course, but if the Vikings had a worse record than another team, it is hardly automatic that other team gets the prime time slot.

Schedule makers in all sports are influenced by putting together games (Jets-Giants, 49ers-Raiders, A's-Giants) with more frequency than teams not even in the same leagues should meet based on natural drawing power.

The NBA schedule this year was held hostage because until LeBron made his decision, they couldn't do a schedule because which ever team got LeBron had to be available for games on the right nights that would draw the most ratings. One of the reasons UFC couldn't book arenas late this year is because any building with an NBA team couldn't give them a Saturday night until the schedule came out, delayed because of LeBron.

Many college football and college basketball teams for years would manipulate their schedules for easy out of conference wins, and weak times would schedule strong teams based on getting good payoffs to essentially walk into the hornet's nest.

There is no such thing as a sport that makes revenue (or where there is a risk of losing revenue it's even stronger) where revenue doesn't greatly influence many major decisions.

The College Football system is archaic, but that doesn't make college football pro wrestling any more than UFC is pro wrestling because they book fights based on what matches they think will sell, as long as the matches are real.

And to make sure nobody is confused, if Fitch is a title contender, he's virtually immune (unless he does something stupid) from being cut. The whole discussion is based on if he is no longer a contender.



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