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LAS VEGAS – Conor McGregor is a brilliant self-promoter with an innate sense of how to manipulate public opinion.
Since last Tuesday, he has posted six times on Twitter and twice on Facebook. The first Facebook post, which hit about 10:40 a.m. ET on Thursday, has gotten 726,000 likes, 265,347 shares and 131,730 comments. The second Facebook post, which went up about 10 hours later, has 182,000 likes, 6,135 shares and 5,688 comments.
His six tweets have combined to receive 405,000 retweets and 454,000 likes.
That is a mind-bogglingly effective use of social media. He’s forced the UFC to scramble a bit.
Few, if any, other fighters could accomplish what he has in less than a week. The UFC 200 announcement news conference on Friday was overwhelmingly about McGregor, as was most of the media coverage last week, which no doubt will wind up lessening the sales of UFC 197.
For more than a year, McGregor has hinted that at the very least, he’d like to co-promote with the UFC, if not one day outright promote himself by creating McGregor Promotions.
This is the path that boxing star Floyd Mayweather took, and for just $750,000, it helped set him on his way to becoming the highest-paid athlete in sports history.
Mayweather paid Top Rank $750,000 to buy his way out of his promotional contract in 2006. He created Mayweather Promotions and, with the mantra “I’m my own boss,” found a way to make himself the biggest draw in boxing.
He holds every significant pay-per-view record and his 2015 fight with Manny Pacquiao sold an astonishing 4.6 million units. That is almost certainly more than all of boxing will sell in 2016 and 2017 combined, unless Mayweather comes out of retirement to pursue a 50th fight.
McGregor is a brilliant young man who not only is aware of his value but has the courage to fight for what he feels he’s worth.
He’s going head-to-head with the UFC in a way that no athlete ever has before. Oh, there have been plenty of fighters who have taken on the UFC, most notably Hall of Famer Randy Couture, but his methods mostly meant using the courts.
McGregor is instead trying to turn public sentiment against the UFC and in his favor as he battles over the company’s insistence that he attend promotional and marketing events.
McGregor last week essentially asked for a one-time exemption from promoting and marketing so that he could focus on training for a planned bout with Nate Diaz at UFC 200 on July 9 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Diaz submitted McGregor in the second round of their March 5 bout at UFC 196, the company’s biggest event ever, and McGregor has said promotional duties took away from his ability to properly prepare for that event.
There has been speculation within the MMA community that McGregor would eventually try to break away from the UFC and become its version of Mayweather: Booking, promoting and distributing shows himself, all the while keeping the bulk of the money for himself.
The fact that McGregor is under contract to the UFC makes it extraordinarily unlikely that such a venture would ever get beyond the wishful thinking stage.
But suppose for the sake of argument that McGregor completes his contract with the UFC, becomes a free agent and instead of signing with another promotion, creates his own promotion a la Mayweather.
Is it possible he could have anywhere near the kind of success that Mayweather did from 2007 through 2015. Mayweather fought 12 times in that span. He sold a total of 18.63 million pay-per-views, including 4.6 million versus Pacquiao, 2.46 million against Oscar De La Hoya and 2.25 million versus Canelo Alvarez.
He exceeded 1 million sales in eight of those 12 and averaged 1.55 million.
McGregor could, of course, set up a pay-per-view if he were to complete his contract with the UFC and hit free agency. There are complications in that route, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that he can.
He faces several problems that Mayweather did not face in doing what he did in boxing.
No other MMA promoter has succeeded on a large scale in doing pay-per-view during the Zuffa era of UFC ownership, and there is a reason for that.
The UFC is essentially a closed-door league, with hundreds of fighters under contract. The number fluctuates, but the current figure is around 550 fighters.
No boxing promoter has close to that many fighters under contract, and most have only a handful. Top Rank, for instance, has fewer than 70. Golden Boy is the only other company in the U.S. with a large stable and it’s nowhere near 100.
That is important because if McGregor Promotions is going to put on its own shows, it’s going to need a pool of fighters to use, including opponents who would be attractive against McGregor himself.
Between the UFC and Bellator, the overwhelming majority of those fighters are under contract. There aren’t a lot of free fighters with recognizable names who would lend value to the card. It would all be on McGregor’s shoulders.
MMA is different than boxing in another way. Boxing promoters routinely get away with spending little on the pay-per-view undercard and focus almost all of their time, attention and money on the main event.
MMA fans have come to expect deep cards with compelling matches up-and-down the lineup in order to be persuaded to drop $60 to buy.
Let’s take a close look at the hypothetical first McGregor Promotions card.
In the main event, it would be McGregor, arguably the most popular fighter in the world, against a fighter currently not under contract to either the UFC or Bellator.
The rest of the card would be filled with essentially what serves as the preliminary card on a World Series of Fighting show, meaning, more entry-level fighters looking to build themselves.
McGregor is a brilliant promoter, and such a gambit would generate significant media attention. But given that his dispute with the UFC now is that he wants to do less promotion, fighting on his own show would simply mean more.
He wouldn’t have the UFC infrastructure to save him when he wanted to stay out of the public eye to train and refresh mentally. He wouldn’t have the benefit of Dana White’s 3.58 million Twitter followers to rely upon, nor the UFC account’s 3.74 million.
He wouldn’t have the benefit of the many talented production professionals who produce the "Embedded" series or the "Countdown" shows or the "Road to the Octagon." He wouldn’t have its public relations staff pitching MMA media stories.
All of that he would have to do himself. And while he could hire a third-party PR firm to help, third-party firms don’t have the knowledge of the sport or the expertise needed to find the right players.
Then there would be the fact of competition from the UFC itself. If our as-of-now fictitious McGregor Promotions decided it would put on a pay-per-view, it would have to compete with whatever the UFC would choose to do.
In 2008 when Affliction chose to do a pay-per-view, UFC put a free show on Spike.
It could certainly do that opposite a McGregor PPV and would almost be guaranteed to have a more compelling top-to-bottom card than anything McGregor could put together.
White and UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta play hardball. And if a fighter openly challenged them in this manner, they might choose to put a pay-per-view card on opposite McGregor’s.
It would be easy to say that fans would choose McGregor’s offering, but if the UFC put on several big fights against it, and advertised heavily, how many fans would actually buy the McGregor show in that event?
Since Zuffa purchased the UFC in 2001, there have been a few competitors that have attempted pay-per-views. None of them exceeded 100,000 sales and none lasted more than two shows.
The reason is, they bleed money and it’s not sustainable.
The shows that truly break through and sell huge numbers of pay-per-view are not fueled by the passionate hardcore fan base, which would be the most likely to support a McGregor Promotions venture.
Rather, it’s the casual fans, or even the non-MMA fans, who hear the drumbeat through the UFC’s relentless promotion and marketing and the free media attention it generates.
Those would be the most difficult fans to reach for a fighter promoting himself.
It would be a tremendously gutsy and courageous move were McGregor to opt to go out and promote his own shows.
It wouldn’t necessarily be the smartest move, though.
And if we’ve learned anything in the three-plus years McGregor has been in the public spotlight, it’s that he is an extremely intelligent man.