Bigger Isn’t Always Better: Smaller Venues for the UFC Aidan O'Connor September 15, 2014 Spotlight Last Friday, UFC Fight Night 50 proved successful on several levels. As a free event on Fox Sports 1, with several impressive names and stunning finishes, the UFC brand brought exciting content to the state of Connecticut for the first time in nine years. In doing so, the promotion chose the intimate venue of Foxwoods Resort Casino as its location for the night of action, which was attended by 4086 fans. For a company that is now accustomed to hosting major events in arenas across the globe, typically in excess of 10,000, the UFC Fight Night Series has embraced the smaller setting as a way to not only diversify the UFC live viewing experience as the number of shows rises, but to carefully enter new or less familiar geographical markets. Taking the UFC’s sojourn into Foxfields Resort Casino as a leading example, we can identify some of the unique benefits of these more intimate venues, which make them a vital component to the UFC live event model and promotional machine. The Throwback Effect Taking place in a casino establishment under the ownership of the Native American nation, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, UFC Fight Night 50 had an added historical significance that further endeared the event to the most devout of MMA fans. Returning to Native American territory as an established brand with a presence in the sports mainstream, the Foxfields Resort Casino is an abstract and symbolic reminder of an era when the sport of mixed martial arts lay on the fringe of social acceptance. Originally lambasted by many high profile figures including former US presidential candidate John McCain as extreme violence that should not be glorified, the UFC – as a pioneering ambassador for the sport of mixed martial arts – found refuge from these critics in venues owned and operated by tribal governments. The likes of the Mohegan Sun Arena, run by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, previously permitted events including UFC 39: Couture vs. Rodriguez to take place while the sport remained outlawed in many parts of the country back in 2002. In 2014, the perception of MMA has been refined by regulation, professional organization, and elite production value, which have elevated the sport’s standing largely through the UFC product. Yet the company’s willingness to pay subtle homage to its past by continuing to host events in unconventional locations such as Foxwoods is a sign of maturity that the UFC now owns and enjoys. These venues were instrumental to MMA sport’s survival in its formative years, forming a significant part of its rich culture that the company wishes to preserve. The Allure of Intimacy A large part of the preparation behind any live event is making the experience immersive for those in attendance. While the scale of larger venues including Dallas’ American Airlines Center, London’s 02, and Toronto’s Rogers Stadium adds to the grandeur of a show, smaller buildings have their own merit too. When closer to the action, attendees like those at Foxwoods can experience the tense, electric energy that surrounds cage side. Gergard Mousasi’s entrance to Hate or Glory by Gesaffelstein over the weekend proved to benefit from the venue’s compact acoustics, as the sullen beats accompanied Mousasi’s walk through Foxwood’s carpeted hallways, silencing the crowd. Such tension is often lost in larger venues, where sound has a tendency to travel upwards and different angles of the Octagon are presented, dividing the atmosphere among parts of the audience as they each experience nuanced versions of the same listening and viewing experience. A collection of louder, outspoken fans can is also more likely to counter the immersivness of an event in larger arenas where obnoxious or unruly behaviour is harder to regulate. These variables do not always exist in smaller settings. The Fighting in a Phonebooth Dynamic Another element of the smaller UFC that impacts the viewing experience is the cage size. This notion has been explored by both Josh Barnett and Ariel Helwani since UFN 50 went down, and has become one of the signature research items in Reed Kuhn’s dynamic study of trends in MMA – Fightnomics. The smaller venues the UFC selects for its shows are often accompanied by a smaller 25 foot diameter Octagon cage, contrary to the UFC’s conventional 30 foot model. The 44% difference in space between the two spaces (as calculated in Kuhn’s Fightnomics) helped treat fans in attendance to four consecutive stoppages on UFC Fight Night 50’s main card. By limiting the combatants’ ability to move out of the opponent’s range, the closer confines forced talents to engage, with the results varying from technical knockouts of Derrick Lewis and Alastair Overeem, to the doctor’s stoppage of Michael Chiesa and submission of Gegard Mousasi. While the most significant factor affecting finish rates in MMA appears to be the size of the fighter and the striking power they subsequently generate, the size of the environment they compete also conditions MMA competition to exciting finishes. Aspects including cage circling are limited, while instances of clinching, grappling, and boxing in the pocket are increased. The UFC has selectively used the smaller Octagon to enhance its secondary shows including UFC Fight Night and Ultimate Fighter finales of seasons past, which typically take place in smaller venues. But there may also be another reason for this selection. As a calculated risk and part of a carefully organized strategy to leave a positive and lasting impression in new and less familiar markets, the smaller Octagon that accompanies minor venues is a catalyst for the intense combat a new audience craves. Attendees of the shows, excited by the spectacle they have witnessed, are more likely to spread positive sentiments about MMA among their social circles, creating a sustainable promotional tool that allows the UFC to make their return to the same area a more profitable one. As much as the size of the Octagon dictates the action inside of it, there are also implications on the outside that may have an even greater effect in the long run. In the global growth strategy of the UFC and its ambition to one day eclipse soccer as the world’s most prolific sport, the variety of unique advantages surrounding smaller venues confirms that there is a distinct place for the intimate setting in MMA’s past, present, and future.