October 22, 2016

All-New, All-Different: UFC Backstage Changes Signal Big Shifts Heading Into 2017

By Adam Martin

The recent sale of the UFC to WME-IMG has already led to a number of notable changes within the company's hierarchy, and the promotion promises to have a much different look. On one hand, when the company was sold, it was obvious that some changes would be coming. However, many of the changes that have come -- and that will come -- have come as a surprise.

Obviously, with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta selling their ownership stake in the company, the fact that neither will play a prominent role going forward isn't surprising at all. While the Fertittas were the ones who originally put up that famous $2 million back in 2000 to buy the company and transform it into the $4 billion powerhouse it is today, they have moved on and will no longer have much of anything to do with the new UFC. Frank was in the shadows for the most part, but Lorenzo was a real figurehead of the UFC, always sitting cageside at every big event, and always on the stage during the weigh-ins. So him not being around makes things aesthetically different. That being said, the man they hired to run the show all those years ago, UFC President Dana White, will stick around for the foreseeable future, so there will be some consistency in that respect. But that's about it.

UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, the man who was responsible for booking most of the best fights in UFC history, has already announced he's leaving at the end of the year, with Sean Shelby, the other matchmaker, taking Silva's spot as the top matchmaker in the company. Mick Maynard, formerly of Legacy FC, will take over Shelby's old role. While there's no doubt Shelby and Maynard are fantastic matchmakers in their own right, neither man is Silva, and the type of matchups the UFC puts on next year and going forward will likely be much different, since Silva's ideas will no longer factor into the equation. And on a lighter note, you won't see Silva sitting cageside going crazy during a highlight-reel knockout or running into the Octagon after a great fight, shaking the winners' hands (and occasionally getting a hug from a fighter.) These lighter moments are what make MMA so special, after all.

UFC head of public relations Dave Sholler, the man who ran the majority of press conferences for the last bunch of years, has already announced he's taken a similar role with the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA. Sholler, who famously got in between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier during a brawl, was the link on social media between the fans and the promotion, not to mention the medium between the media and the promotion, and so with him gone, things are going be different from a PR perspective. For most fans, this isn’t going to be a huge deal, but it will be for the fighters, who have had to deal with backstage changes like the departures in recent years of Burt Watson and Jacob “Stitch” Duran.

In addition, there are rumors -- though not confirmed -- that the UFC will scale back its schedule from the near 50 events it's currently running to about 35. In some ways, this is a good thing, as having a UFC event every weekend is no doubt exhausting. This also means there will be fewer fighters needed, so lots of cuts are to be expected, which could increase the depth and quality
of the cards. There are also rumors that “The Ultimate Fighter” will be disposed of, which means even fewer UFC newcomers that must be given fights. I expect many of the cards being cut to be international events, with the UFC instead focusing on the domestic U.S. market, as well as some "hot spots" like Ireland. But places such as Canada, where MMA has fizzled out after a red-hot period of time, will likely feel the pinch and get less, if not zero, events next year. Asia, I believe, is almost an afterthought at this point, with Africa a pipedream and most European markets to be ignored going forward.

On the other hand, fewer events means fewer workers are needed, and last weekend the UFC cut 15 percent of the workforce in its Las Vegas office, including big names like Garry Cook and Marshall Zelaznik. It also shed a number of workers in some of its global offices, such as in Toronto, where only two of the 10 employees they had working there now remain. Ken Berger, head of UFC Asia, was let go. The promotion's other global offices will likely see more cuts in the future, with some of these positions being filled by WME-IMG associates, and many of the jobs likely being eliminated completely. When you buy a company for $4 billion, it makes sense to cut back in certain areas, but at the same time, some of the cuts the UFC has made, such as firing head of social media Shanda Moloney, are very surprising, and it makes you wonder what the promotion's other plans are.

It’s also worth wondering where we'll be watching the UFC going forward. Although pay-per-view is the backbone of the company, one has to wonder if the company still plans on doing 13 PPVs a year, or if it will scale back and just do a few big ones, with the rest of the fight cards on television. And speaking of television, the UFC's TV deal with Fox is coming up to end soon, so that makes things even more interesting, as obviously the new owners have major ties in the television world. All of this leads to the future of UFC Fight Pass. It's obviously been a big initiative for the company, but will it be going forward? Who knows.

Here's the thing, though: as someone blankly pointed it out to me on Twitter, the new owners of the UFC are billionaires, so clearly they aren't dummies. They have a game plan, and they will see it out, but we just don't know yet what that game plan is. Regardless, though, the sport is changing. 2016 is the transitional year and we are heading into a 2017 that is going to be much different. We have already seen many of the changes take place, and many more of them will be coming soon. On one hand, I'm excited for some of the changes being made, but on the other hand, I fear how some of the changes will affect the sport. At the end of the day, though, we don't have a say in it, so all we can do is sit back and watch, hoping the UFC keeps on doing what it does best, and that's putting on the best MMA show in the world.

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