The Anatomy of an MMA Show, Part 1
(NOTE: MMAjunkie.com is proud to announce a new series, “The Anatomy of an MMA Show.” While just a few organizations dominate the national and international scene, many regional promotions are finding success on the local scene. The Florida-based Xtreme Fighting Championships, which is averaging more than 10,000 spectators per show, has been one of the best. In the first of his five-part series, XFC President John Prisco, pictured with the Florida State Boxing Commission’s Tom Molloy, takes us behind the scenes and discusses the company’s challenges as he prepares for the Dec. 5 XFC show.)
“Hey, John Prisco, congratulations!” exclaimed a middle-aged man in a TapouT T-shirt at the after-party. “Awesome show! That was your fourth straight MMA promotion in Florida to draw more than 10,000 fans, right?”
I nodded wearily. Just one hour earlier – 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 13 to be exact – I was still inside the St. Pete Times Forum getting ready to watch Gan “The Giant” McGee successfully launch his MMA comeback against tough journeyman Johnathan Ivey in the main event of Xtreme Fighting Championships “Salute to Our Armed Forces 5: The Return of the Giant.”
And yes, the middle-aged man was right: We drew more than 11,200 fans to the XFC event, making it our fourth straight promotion to draw more than 10,000 fans. Both the UFC and EliteXC have staged major fight cards here in the Sunshine State, but neither of them has even once cracked the 10,000-person plateau.
Quite naturally, as the president and promoter of XFC, I take a great deal of pride in our unique accomplishment.
“So, when’s your next show?” the man asked.
I honestly had no idea who this man was; at these post-event after-parties, I usually only recognize about five percent of the people. But that’s cool. The great thing about these meet-and-greets is that you get to interact directly with the fans who just watched your show – and you get to learn firsthand which fighters successfully forged an emotional connection with the audience. It’s something you can’t always pick up from the videotape.
“XFC will be back at the Forum in 81 days, on Friday, Dec. 5,” I said.
I also told him that we produced this latest show just 76 days after our previous stadium show, XFC’s “Salute to Our Armed Forces 4: Judgment in the Cage,” back on June 28.
The middle-aged man scratched his head.
“Wow, that’s a pretty quick turnaround – three stadium shows in less than 160 days?” he said. “So who’ll be fighting in the Dec. 5 main event?”
“I don’t know yet,” I replied. “But rest assured, it’ll be a great fight card. Hope you can make it!”
“Me too!” he laughed. “This was my first live MMA event, and I gotta tell you, this sport is even more exciting in person! But you know, 81 days doesn’t really give you much time to re-energize all the local fight fans and pack the stadium once again. You guys must have the promotional game worked out to an absolute science!”
“Well, if it’s a science, it’s an inexact science,” I laughed. “Hope to see you Dec. 5!”
I then thanked the man for his patronage and shook a few hundred additional hands that night before retiring to my hotel room. But that fan’s words resonated deeply with me.
You see, so many outsiders look at the MMA industry as a lucrative pseudo-science. They’ve seen those reports on CNBC and in Time Magazine about MMA skyrocketing past professional boxing and pro wrestling in pay-per-view buy rates and overall viewership, and they quickly conclude that the successful promoters are making millions following a secret formula for building their brand, generating public interest, and drawing overflowing crowds of free-spending fans.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many aspiring MMA promoters and deep-pocketed businessmen have solemnly sworn to me that their promotion was just “months away” from being the next UFC – that they’ve somehow stumbled upon the secret science to MMA promotions. But if this was all just a science, then anyone with adequate funding could do it. All they’d need to do is plug the right numbers into the magic formula and – presto! – they’re now a multimillion-dollar MMA promotion.
Believe me, the MMA graveyard is littered with corpses of countless MMA organizations, many of which were backed by vast sums of money and supported by brilliant, savvy business executives who thought the exact same thing. But what just a handful of people in this industry truly understand is that MMA is not a science; it’s a vision. And there is no magic formula.
The following morning I peeled my beleaguered head off the hotel pillow and met with the XFC staff to review the previous night’s event. We have a strong, close-knit team of volunteers and employees, a few MBAs and a few law degrees, and a whole lot of street smarts. But more than anything, it’s a passionate, dedicated group of workers that lives and breathes all things MMA. I’m absolutely convinced that you cannot succeed in this business without sincerely loving this sport from top to bottom – the fights, the fighters, and the thrill of competition. And the startup promotions that try to fake the sincerity are quickly exposed – and soon filing for bankruptcy.
We all took turns around the table offering our day-after critiques, but the conversation soon centered on the upcoming Dec. 5 fight card. That’s sort of how our team is hardwired; the moment the last bell chimes and the stadium lights go out, the most important event in XFC’s history is always the next one.
“Remember our business model,” I told the table. “For XFC to succeed, it’s critical for all aspects of our promotion to grow – from the quality of our fighters to the saturation levels of our pre-fight publicity. We’re building a great deal of momentum right now. XFC is the undisputed king of Florida MMA, and we’re staging the biggest shows this side of UFC. Our activity level alone ranks us in the upper-echelon of the MMA universe, and we’re starting to generate a great deal of traction in the media. In fact, last night’s fight card was covered as far north as the Vancouver Sun. People in the industry are just beginning to take note of us, which means that our next event can’t just be as good as our last one – it’s got to be bigger and better. Otherwise, it’ll look like we’ve taken a step backward. Our No. 1 goal right now is for the Dec. 5 fight card to be the single greatest MMA event Florida has ever seen.”
“John, I’ve got a few thoughts about that,” boomed a voice in the back.
It was David, one of our younger team members – one of the guys who primarily manages our inner-city street teams. I like David a lot; he has a true love for MMA and a hellacious work ethic, but like many young adults fresh out of college, he hasn’t yet developed a strong business sense for the fight game.
“Sure, David. Go ahead,” I replied.
“Well, look. We’re putting on these big stadium shows, and that’s great, but I don’t think we can take the next step in this industry without investing some big money in some big-name fighters,” David said. “We’ve got to sign someone like a Tito Ortiz – an undeniable superstar that will tell the entire world that XFC is now ready to take its rightful place among the top two or three MMA promotions. Beause that’s the only thing we’re missing, really. Our shows are huge and we’re producing stadium events every 80 days or so – but the one thing we’re lacking is a mainstream, superstar headliner. And until that happens, we’ll never be able to compete directly with UFC.”
“Our goal never was to compete directly with UFC,” I answered. “Nobody can out-UFC the UFC. But David, I’m glad you spoke your mind because you’ve just identified the temptation that has triggered the collapse of far too many MMA organizations – and that’s the temptation to throw large amounts of money at a ‘name’ fighter without having a realistic plan for monetizing the investment.”
“Of course we could monetize someone like Tito Ortiz,” David countered. “He’d help us sell more tickets, land more sponsors, maybe land a national TV deal – or hell, even leap directly to pay per view.”
“And what happens if we spend top dollar on a Tito Ortiz and he gets knocked out in his first fight?” I asked.
“Well, we’d have to protect him a little bit, I guess,” acknowledged David.
“Exactly,” I said. “And XFC’s fundamental brand identity is that we will not protect anyone. Listen, David. We just drew more than 11,000 fans to our show. How many other MMA organizations on the planet do you think could draw a crowd of more than 10,000?”
“I don’t know,” David sheepishly replied. “Not too many, I suppose.”
“Wrong,” I said. “With enough money to invest in the fight card and a well-organized, well-funded multimedia promotional campaign, about half-a-dozen promoters could probably draw 10,000 fans. But they’d lose their shirts in the process because the cost of the fight card and the size of the advertising campaign would require expenditures in the high six-figures – or even more. It’s a bad business model. Furthermore, if the company is identified too closely with a single headlining fighter – like EliteXC was with Kimbo Slice – then the company is discredited once its headliner suffers defeat.”
“You really think half-a-dozen promoters could draw more than 10,000 fans?” David skeptically asked.
“With enough money, they definitely could for their first show,” I answered. “But if they delivered a crappy product, those fans won’t come back – irrespective of how much money they spend in the future. You see, what makes XFC so special isn’t that we drew more than 10,0000 fans one time. It’s that 10,0000 fans came back a second time. And then a third time. And even more fans just showed up last night for a fourth time. And most importantly from a fiscal perspective, we’re drawing these crowds without relying on a big-budget headliner who’ll bust the business model that’s allowing us to be one of the few promotions in the entire industry that’s actually turning a profit. Remember, guys: At XFC, we’re not promoting a fighter; we’re promoting the sport of MMA. Fighters come and go – they win and they lose – but the sport itself must always remain our primary selling point. The reason we’re growing so rapidly right now is that we’ve taught Florida fight fans to associate an XFC event with nonstop action between emerging fighters and future superstars. Companies like the UFC and Affliction can spend tens of millions of dollars battling tooth and nail to sign the champions of today – and God bless ‘em for it – but for XFC to achieve long-term success, we need to be identified as the promotion that showcases the champions of tomorrow. And as much as we all love and respect all-time greats like Tito Ortiz, he just doesn’t fit into XFC’s brand positioning as the organization that promotes the next generation of cage warriors.”
“OK, OK – I concede!” David surrendered. “I guess I kind of lost track of the big picture. Sorry, John.”
“Don’t get me wrong, guys,” I said to the group. “We’re still going to follow our business model, and that means we’re going to continue to invest significantly more money into every fight card that follows. So the quality of our fighters will continue to improve, as will our publicity budget and the size of our production crew. But we can’t fall into the deathtrap of thinking that a big name fighter represents a shortcut to success. We’ve got to be smart with our finances – and only make decisions that reinforce our brand identity. Believe me, there’s a need for an organization like XFC in the MMA industry, but the moment we lose sight of who we are, so will the fans.”
Ring! I glanced down at my cell phone and saw an international number pop up on the screen.
“Hello?” I asked.
“Greetings, Mr. Prisco,” spoke the foreign-sounding voice on the other line. “You don’t know me, but I represent the two top heavyweights in Africa. My fighters have already demolished all the competition on this continent, and their sponsors believe they’re now ready for their American debut. We’ve been reading about the crowds that XFC is able to generate, and we’d like to explore ways we can work together. Are you available to talk business?”
(Check out Part II of the story next week on MMAjunkie.com.)
* * * *
John Prisco is the president of Xtreme Fighting Championships, one of MMA’s most successful regional MMA promotions. In his new series for MMAjunkie.com, he takes readers behind the scenes as XFC prepares for its Dec. 5 show in Tampa. For more on the promotion and the upcoming show, go to www.mmaxfc.com.