Photo by Esther Lin/EliteXC.
High network television ratings, the financial backing of two media giants, and the greatest amount of visibility for an MMA promotion to date proved to be not enough for ProElite and its figurehead brand, EliteXC, as another organization that attempted to dethrone the Zuffa empire has likely come to a crashing halt.
The news of ProElite’s demise has quickly spread throughout the mixed martial arts community and as expected, so has reaction. However the story of the downfall of one of MMA’s most influential companies is just beginning as facts regarding ProElite’s insurmountable debt, failed sale, and questionable tactics will likely surface within the next few weeks following its expected cessation at the end of this week.
During its close to two-year run as one of MMA’s most unique associations, ProElite began as a vision for MMA fighters and fans that weren’t too fond of the monopoly the Ultimate Fighting Championship was quickly creating. Showtime, which owned a 20 percent stake in the company, aired ProElite’s first live event in February 2007. Entitled “EliteXC: Destiny”, over 7,000 fans packed the DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven, Mississippi to see Frank Shamrock continue his return to active competition against Renzo Gracie.
Overall, the EliteXC brand put on a total of twenty events, nine of them promoted as part of its ShoXC: Elite Challenger Series extension, which was formed as an outlet for up-and-coming prospects to showcase their skills in front of a broader audience compared to smaller regional shows.
The company also acquired some of the sport’s better-known feeder promotions in Cage Rage, King of the Cage, and ICON Sport, as well as forming partnerships with Rumble on the Rock and Korea-based Spirit MC. With its goal to build a non-exclusive organization housing several outlets for fighters to stay active in, it once looked as if Zuffa may have had a legitimate rival company to deal with, especially when CBS came calling this past spring.
EliteXC became the first major MMA promotion other than the now-defunct International Fight League to have a live event broadcast on network television when “Primetime” was shown in front of 6.5 million viewers worldwide. However the numbers from the next two events under the CBS banner failed to reach the same level, leading to speculation that CBS may have been considering dropping ProElite from their deal in favor of agreeing to terms with either the UFC or Affliction.
ProElite reportedly accumulated close to $60 million in debt over its existence, an amount too large for the organization to overcome, despite funding from both CBS and Showtime that helped it stay afloat for the short term following an August 15 SEC filing stating that the company would need approximately $3.5 million in funding to operate until the end of the year.
The organization was subject of much criticism during its run, the majority of it surrounding a select group of individuals - Gary Shaw and his son Jared and their prized acquisition, popular internet street brawler Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson, who drew extreme ire from hardcore fans who didn’t want Ferguson’s image to taint a sport that had began to drift far away from its controversial past.
However negativity reached an all-time high following Ferguson’s first professional defeat to one-time “Ultimate Fighter” reality show contestant Seth Petruzelli, who one day after his monumental victory, revealed that EliteXC officials had bribed him with a bonus to keep the fight against Ferguson on the feet.
A slew of negative publicity, mainstream media coverage, contradicting official statements from EliteXC, and a preliminary investigation by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation into the matter followed and likely damaged relations with both CBS and Showtime, who entered into talks to purchase the ProElite brand before opting to walk away from the negotiations and reportedly cut off all funding, quickly leading to the company’s deterioration over the last couple of weeks.
While some fans may rejoice over the demise of ProElite and its lackluster advertising efforts, sketchy operating methods, and overall lack of MMA knowledge, the fact remains that hundreds of fighters are now unemployed as a result of the organization folding.
The major promotions such as the UFC, WEC, Strikeforce, and Affliction may choose to participate in the newly stocked free agent market, but the majority of fighters under contract to ProElite will remain without a home and be relegated to the smaller local shows where they once developed their skills.
Unlike the failure of the IFL, PRIDE, and BodogFight promotions, the MMA landscape is now losing multiple organizations for fighters to compete in. The futures of Cage Rage, King of the Cage and ICON Sport, three of MMA’s longest-running and well-known regional shows, are now in doubt because of non-competing contracts their owners signed before being bought out by ProElite.
The demise of ProElite likely signals that multiple organizations will never again allow themselves to be purchased by a larger parent company while they are still successful and experiencing monetary gain, the exact mistake that the aforementioned three made over the last two years.
Also in question is the train of thought of network television executives - With mixed martial arts only pulling in mediocre numbers on CBS and the only brand to put on an event for a channel now extinct, will they ever again consider taking the risk of putting the sport back in the national spotlight once again, or leave it relegated to cable television for the foreseeable future? Affliction remains a likely candidate to replace EliteXC’s spot in CBS’ bi-monthly lineup but whether or not a deal will be struck remains unknown.
Amidst all of the doom and gloom surrounding ProElite’s demise, EliteXC may not be completely dead as a number of outlets will be permitted to bid for the rights to the brand’s name, including its former part-owners, Showtime Networks. Still, the fact remains that Showtime could also easily choose to just purchase the naming rights, video library and nothing else.
The most awkward situation coming out of this involves the UFC, the sport’s biggest, most profitable and most successful promotional company to date. At the same time EliteXC is going down the drain, so are three of the UFC’s traditional feeder organizations. Affliction Entertainment is visibly going through its own share of growing pains and San Jose-based Strikeforce doesn’t look ready enough to burst out onto the national scene just yet.
The MMA landscape has now reverted to what it looked like pre-2005, before “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series cause the sport to explode in popularity - the UFC is still the big dog, but gone is the majority of its competition, as well as some of the smaller organizations that produced some of the UFC’s most popular stars. Will the UFC and the sport continue to thrive?