Ed Fishman brings gaming angle front and center for Japanese MMA promoter
By Charles Jay
Ed Fishman brings something fresh and new to the emerging world of mixed martial arts. In a story we posted a couple of months ago, we talked about the mindset that existed in the MMA business - more forward-thinking, skewing toward a younger, more viable consumer demographic than boxing, and because of that, MMA represents an industry that is vibrant and growing, while boxing has remained stagnant, as if running in quicksand.
Fishman says he talked to plenty of boxing people who had pretty much told him the same thing.
"Boxing is not what it used to be," he said, "especially if you go into the heavyweight, light heavyweight divisions, it's not there. Mixed martial arts have become real now. People know it's not phony. fighters train very, very hard. There's a little more to understand. But this is fast and exciting, and new people are always coming in."
The gaming/entertainment entrepreneur has every intention of taking things to a different dimension than has been seen in mixed martial arts before. He has secured himself a position as president of PRIDE USA, which essentially means he is involved with overseeing the PRIDE shows that will take place in this country. The initial presentation, back on October 21, was a success at the Thomas & Mack Center, and now he's coming back again on February 24 with a nine-bout card that will highlight a middleweight championship fight between Wanderlei Silva and Dan Henderson in the main event and be aired in the United States on pay-per-view.
Fishman appears to be attacking his involvement with PRIDE from a different angle than others who have promoted it, in that the initial lure for him was gaming-related. That may sound strange, since the owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championships - Lorenzo Fertitta - also heads up Station Casinos, which operates 18 gaming establishments in Nevada alone. But Fertitta's casinos, by and large, cater to a local crowd, and thus do not place an emphasis on facilities that would accommodate major sporting events. As a result, Fertitta's model has not included a lot of synergy between the event and his casino properties.
Fishman's intention is that gaming will drive the PRIDE shows, for the most part.
The shows are held at the Thomas & Mack strictly by design, since the idea is that , rather than house the promotion at one casino location, a number of casinos will be involved with buying tickets and sending players to the event, under their "auspices," so to speak, and would not be in danger of losing those players to another establishment during the "walkout," as might be the case if the event were to be held at a casino property. Another reason this can be facilitated is that this is an era when it is not unusual for many casino brands to be consolidated under one corporate banner, as in the case of Harrah's, for example (which, incidentally, is a major supporter of the PRIDE-Las Vegas show).
A key element to the long-term success of the shows is to attract some of the players who have the potential to make a huge impact on any casino's bottom line - the Asian gamblers. These are "whales" who have the ability to travel anywhere at their leisure, and more importantly, who also have the ability to put tens of millions of dollars across the casino's tables on any given weekend. PRIDE is a well-known brand name in Asian sports, so among this clientele there is a natural familiarity with the event and the combatants. That makes it an extremely feasible proposition to lure the players in for a gambling vacation in Vegas. From there, you just have to do the math - if the aggregate loss of the Asian players brought in by one casino is $1 million (quite attainable), that makes the casino's involvement a very big winner.
"Having gone to several PRIDE events, I saw lots of Asian players," said Fishman. "They came from Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea. I was at three of the events. Two of them drew 50,000 people and one of them was in the Tokyo Dome where there was 65,000 people, and I knew these people would come to America if PRIDE came. And that's what happened. Over 1100 fans came in from Asia alone - not counting what the casinos invited. I could tell there were several million-dollar players."
Fishman, however, has not discounted the conversion of viable "low-rollers" into MMA fans, either. With his vast background in player development, and access to some of the most comprehensive databases of casino gamblers in the business, he probably understands the profile of that level of player more than anybody. In fact, one of his first groundbreaking moves in the casino gaming world was his World Championship of Blackjack, a tournament specifically designed for mid-level players which drew over 1400 paid entrants in its debut at the Sahara in Las Vegas in 1978, and led to dozens and dozens of Fishman-promoted events in slots, roulette, baccarat and more, constructing a model for tournament play that still exists in virtually every casino to this day.
And of course, Fishman is even better known as one of the founders of Players Club International, an organization centered around discounts and special deals at participating casinos that employed Telly Savalas as its spokesperson and grew to more than 350,000 members.
"We are talking right now to a couple of major casino firms that have sites throughout the country which represent small venues - whether it's 500 or up to eight or ten thousand, where we can have smaller events to find new MMA customers and also MMA fighters," Fishman says, "and we can bring them to the point where they can develop into champions and be on television."
Now Fishman is ready to place one of his biggest bets yet. He would like to buy PRIDE - that is, the entire organization - and is attempting to set the wheels in motion to make that happen. He is seeking a negotiation process, during which time he would gauge the PRIDE ownership's intentions, conduct due diligence, and make an offer. Whether he is able to complete the purchase will not be a make-or-break for him to remain in the industry. Whether he makes the PRIDE deal happen or not, Fishman insists he's going to stay in MMA.
He is not PRIDE's only suitor, if you believe the rumors. The UFC is also reportedly interested, but that move may be for the ultimate purpose of eliminating a rival.
Fishman hopes that doesn't happen.
"I don't like to see monopolies," he says. "If UFC buys PRIDE, and if they throw it away, then right now, if nobody came to Las Vegas who really had enough backing, they (UFC) will control the fighter's pay; they'll basically own it all. That won't happen. I'll be there. We have the funds to do it. We have the television experience to do it. And we understand what the casino wants."
The MMA world is nothing if not ultra-competitive. The UFC had things virtually all to itself for a while, but as expected, with its success other players have entered the fray. The International Fight League (IFL) came with a team concept, imaginative leadership, marketing savvy, and an IPO undertaken late last year that has since enabled the company to attain a market value of $829 million, which to put it into perspective, is higher than that of the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox COMBINED (at least on paper).
Boxing promoter Gary Shaw is one of the principals in Elite XC, seemingly created specifically for Showtime, which had its debut a couple of weekends ago. With Showtime's commitment, and Shaw's tenacity, it should have a chance to stick around. Bodog Fight is backed by an online gaming empire built by master marketers, and can succeed either as an entree to casino and sportsbook sites bearing its name, or as a branding vehicle.
Then comes PRIDE, which would seem to have quite a potential upside in the U.S., fueled by a cult following that has developed due to its well-established name in Asia. PRIDE has aired some of its shows in North America, but did not enter the live market in the States until last October. The U.S. initiative is not a fleeting thing; this is very much a part of the Japanese company's overall strategy.
With some uncertainty in their TV situation in Japan, that strategy has taken a more aggressive turn. And PRIDE turned to Fishman to implement that initiative, which can potentially help the pay-per-view numbers increase greatly. A cable television deal is in place, and all kinds of promotional tie-ins are in the works.
Anyone connected with MMA is familiar with PRIDE's ability to draw tremendous live gates - as many as 91,107 fans in Tokyo, in fact, for a collaboration with K-1 back in August of 2002. the first Las Vegas show, PRIDE 32, featuring Fedor Emilianeko vs. Mark Coleman, drew a crowd of 11,727 at the Thomas & Mack Center, a pretty good debut effort.
The general attitude on the part of PRIDE's hierarchy is that their brand of fighting takes the sport to a different level. "I think it's fine if people consider the UFC to be a gateway to mixed martial arts," says PRIDE CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara. "Once they step through that gateway, they will find PRIDE waiting for them."
Now with the presence of Ed Fishman, it appears everyone is on board with taking the marketing to another level as well. The February 24 Vegas show is a critical event in the company's history, and will serve as a pretty good barometer as to how well the Japanese-based outfit can do challenging the big boys in the U.S.
If Fishman gets his wish, however, what happens afterward may help to shape an entire sport for years to come.