…they know Strikeforce Challengers is on TV, right?

I just finished watching Strikeforce Challengers: Gurgel vs. Duarte and I’m feeling a bit of a rant coming on…

There’s really only two things I don’t like about Strikeforce Challengers: The concept and the delivery.

The Concept
Strikeforce Challengers is like the developmental league, if you will, for the Strikeforce promotion. The idea is they give opportunities to fighters who maybe aren’t on the same level as their regular Strikeforce roster to fight for the promotion, get some exposure and earn their way onto the main event cards. Sort of like a minor league.

When was the last time you watched minor league sports on TV?

Exactly. You don’t. Hell, even lower-tier professional sports have trouble pulling in an audience. Catch any of the UFL last season? I didn’t think so. By calling an event a “Challengers” event, Strikeforce is telling its potential audience: here’s a sub-par event for you to watch.

The UFC has a way of addressing the same goals as Strikeforce Challengers: they put those fights on the undercard. Then broadcast them on facebook, Versus and Spike. For free. It develops their fighters and promotes their main events, very effectively.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll watch a Strikeforce Challengers event, but I won’t give a second thought to DVRing it and catching it when I get home from something more interesting. But I’m a big fan of MMA, and since you’re reading this, I would assume you share my interest in the sport. Most people couldn’t care less to watch a developmental league-type event, especially if it involves paying for the channel it’s on.

Strikeforce either needs to add better fights to the main events and ditch the “Challengers” label, or make a deal with a channel like Fuel or some other basic cable or broadcast network eager to capture that coveted 18-49 yo male viewer to show it’s Challenger series, like the UFC does with it’s affiliate broadcast outlets. All of this, of course, assumes that Zuffa plans to keep Strikeforce going as an independent promotion, something I’m not sure will happen

Which perfectly leads me to the other thing that tweaked me about Strikeforce Challengers…

The Delivery
Showtime has proven over the years that they can put on sporting coverage in an entertaining, professional way. Their productions are easily on par with any network or other pay channel and usually several levels above basic cable productions. Strikeforce events (both the “real” events and the Challenger ones) generally have the sheen to them that signals to a television-savvy audience that they are worthy of your time: care was put into the production.

This was true of the Gurgel-Duarte event as well, with fighter walk-ins, great, effective lighting and professional multi-camera direction. However, one thing kept bugging me as I watched the fights: There were no audience shots. Even when they talked about celebrities or other fighters in attendance, they wouldn’t go to the shot right away, and when they did cut to a section of fighters and trainers between rounds of the James-Villefort bout, it became obvious why they hadn’t: There was hardly any audience there!*

In fact, I didn’t have the event’s card in front of me, so when I saw that my first thought was that they were showing a preliminary card fight that happened earlier before the crowd really arrived because they had time to fill. The next fight was the main event, and through the cage you could see what looked like lots and lots of empty seats…

It is well known in the comedy world that if you’re filming a show and advance ticket sales aren’t what you need, common practice is for the production company to give out free tickets to fill the house, also known as “papering” the house. The idea being that the energy at the event will be much better with a full house (especially because people who unexpectedly get free tickets to a comedy show laugh more) and that the audience seeing the performance on their TV (and computer) screens will be much larger than the audience attending, so you are really trying to appeal to them by giving the impression that the performer has sold out the show.

Showtime is no stranger to this practice, having papered roughly 70% of the Strikeforce audience for the Voelker vs. Bowling Challengers event in July, according to numbers released by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. I would hope that the viewing audience for this event is larger than the arena’s, so it would make sense to put people in those seats: give the people who bought tickets “upgrades” and fill out the rest of the place with tourists. The dedicated, interested audience gets put in front of the viewer to display their enthusiasm, and the event gets nice crowd shots, so it doesn’t look like it took place in a high school gym.

Showtime/Strikeforce have taken a relatively uninteresting event and made it even less appealing. This does nothing to help MMA get new fans and grow. It could pretty easily be reversed. And that, I would love.

 

Strikeforce: Gurgel vs Duarte Results, Attendance, Gate and Payouts

 

*Looking at event pictures, you can see some shots with a good amount of audience and some where you can clearly see empty seats. This is being written before the attendance numbers are released. I’ll be very curious to find out what they are!