The Importance of Signing Prospects in MMA
One of the biggest complaints MMA fans often leveled at Strikeforce prior to the Zuffa buyout was that the organization seemingly made no attempt to build its own fighters in the organization. When the guys developed in an organization can be counted on one hand (Tyron Woodley, Daniel Cormier and Shane del Rosario are the only three that really come to mind with the San Jo… er, Las Vegas based promotion), that’s not a good sign for the long-term survival of an organization.
Obviously, Strikeforce has some different operating circumstances at this point, but the point still remains that the majority of their roster made their name in the UFC, or other organizations, rather than being comprised of guys who are known as “Strikeforce fighters”. In the long run, Strikeforce would have had to rely on other organizations to replentish their roster and create “new” title contenders. That’s not a viable business model in a sport where promoters dread being looked at as a place for UFC “washouts”.
The worst part about the Strikeforce situation is that they had an existing infrastructure that would have lended itself extremely well to the development of prospects. The Challengers series was perfectly suited to taking young fighters in a low pressure environment and getting them some TV exposure. In the few instances Strikeforce utilized this platform (the aforementioned Woodley and del Rosario) it worked extremely well. Neither would be considered a huge draw by any means at this point, but they were able to gain valuable experience in a relatively safe environment, and at the same time create some name recognition in the process. Recently Strikeforce has been trying to do the same with Ryan Couture, but in all fairness to Ryan, if he had a different last name he wouldn’t be getting the same treatment. This sort of misguided push is what would have held Strikeforce back, regardless of a Zuffa buyout.
In the short time that Zuffa has owned the promotion, although the phrase “business as usual” has been thrown around ad nauseum, there have been numerous changes made to Strikeforce’s operations. Some have made the organization into a “UFC Jr”, but some have also been for the better. For instance, the recent signing of Quinn Mulhern is the exact type of move Strikeforce should have been making all along. Mulhern is one of the top Welterweights on the regional MMA circuit, and is the type of fighter who can build a following due to his entertaining and unique style. Unfortunately for Strikeforce, it doesn’t really make a difference what they do with their roster at this point, as the organization seems to be winding down, regardless of what the talking heads at Zuffa say.
On the other hand, if you look at promotions like the UFC and Bellator, both rosters are stocked with talent developed from within. Current UFC champions Cain Velasquez, Jon Jones and Frankie Edgar were all signed to the promotion with fewer than 10 fights (2, 6 and 5, respectively). The UFC is constantly developing new talent from within, using both the Ultimate Fighter (although that avenue seems to be getting less and less successful), and the old fashioned way of signing free agents and working them through the ranks. With new blood constantly being brought in, the UFC is able to create fresh matchups and prevent their divisions from getting stale (dominant champions like Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre aside).
An even more interesting case study in the importance of prospects is Bellator. Whereas the UFC already has established viewership and can simply create interest in fighters by putting them on televised portions of cards (which keep growing and growing), Bellator averages less than 200,000 viewers per show, and can’t simply count on the fact that the wheels on the bus will simply keep on turning. However, Bellator develops prospects and builds interest in them through the tournament format that has become so associated with their brand. A look at the current Bellator tournaments shows this philosophy in full force. Neither Light Heavyweight finalist, Christian M’Pumbu or Richard Hale was well known prior to this tournament. M’Pumbu has had some fights in DEEP previously, but nothing that would have made him known to anything more than the most ardent MMA fans. Jay Hieron was a known commodity prior to coming to Bellator, but the other Welterweight finalist, Rick Hawn, and Bellator’s 170lb champ, Ben Askren, are both guys developed in-house. The organization’s two brightest emerging stars, the Freire brothers, Patricky and Patricio, were both completely unknown coming out of Brazil prior to their involvement in Bellator’s tournaments, and due to their performances have developed quite passionate fan bases.
Bellator is laying the foundation for their future with a few stars (Eddie Alvarez and Hector Lombard), some solid, recognizable fighters (Hieron, Roger Huerta, Dan Hornbuckle and Marlon Sandro) and a plethora of prospects. Whereas Strikeforce was working off the names other organizations had built, Bellator is taking a more long-term approach, and while they have already experienced many growing pains, it will pay dividends in the end. Clearly Bjorn Rebney and co. understand the important role prospects play in creating and maintaining not only an organization, but building that organization into a brand.