Josh Gross
Wednesday May 21st, 2008

As Tim Sylvia departed Tuesday's press conference announcing Affliction's first mixed martial arts card, three employees of the high-end Westfield Century City mall, which hosted the media event, huddled over a folding table.

"Who's that guy walking over there?" asked one, looking up from a poster promoting Sylvia's July 19 bout against the top heavyweight in the world, Fedor Emelianenko, in Anaheim, Calif.

"That's Tim something ... a UFC guy," one replied, as the 6-foot-8 former champion was swallowed by a sea of hungry lunch goers. Although the feeling throughout the MMA world suggests otherwise, millions of potential fans like the Westfield trio remain untapped.

Still, I've long wondered about the sport's hardcore fan base. What kind of reach do they have? Speaking with promoters, TV executives and fighters, I asked if they felt the pool of over-the-top fans has deepened since The Ultimate Fighter made its way onto Spike TV three years ago?

Answers varied. Some said there was no way to know for sure. Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker suggested the number of die-hard MMA fans in the country could be as low as 40,000 or 50,000. Others placed their estimate much higher.

"I think the hardcore audience will always find [the sport]," Fox Sports Net executive George Greenberg said. "What's happened in the ratings as far as demographics and everything else is that it's expanded exponentially. We're finding casual fans, [who], once they can watch this sport, become [stronger] fans. They're no longer casual fans; they'll look for the big fight. Of course they see things on Spike every week and reality series, and that's fine, but at the end of the day you still need big premiere events. And this is what [Affliction] is."

If the Strikeforce shows that air after 2 a.m. on Saturdays are any indication, there is a sizeable audience out there that simply can't get enough MMA. HDNet Fights CEO Andrew Simon said the network has surpassed 10 million subscribers, primarily because of the strength and varied nature of its MMA content. Signaling what appears to be a growing hardcore fan base, Simon called the live and tape-delayed airing of Dream 3 from Tokyo, Japan, a hit.

Yet, aside from the solid late-night network TV ratings and the MMA coverage on a fledgling HD channel, promoters (not named Zuffa) have continually tried, and failed, to deliver pay-per-view numbers. Sure, it's possible that the casual MMA fans, who were created through the UFC's marketing, could hop online and cultivate a deeper sense of the sport. But the consensus among powerbrokers battling for the remaining sliver of market share suggests this audience -- the same fanatical group who kept the sport alive during its darkest days, who makes up one of the most dynamic online communities -- isn't large enough to sustain a pay-per-view driven event on its own. That's troubling news for promoters willing to jump into the MMA fray.

Affliction is unique, though, in that its brand marketing focuses on clothes, not fighting. But that won't mean much for athletes if the California-based company feels like it's not selling enough merchandise to offset the cost of putting on events. With its July 19 lineup, Affliction doesn't boast a single fighter who's shown he can drive pay-per-view sales.

It's possible that a combination of fighters in compelling bouts (including the top heavyweight in the world) could be enough to drive the typically UFC-driven audience to pony up. I'd imagine anyone reading this would have an interest in the card. News outlets have continually ranked and mentioned Fedor since they began covering the sport. UFC President Dana White has given the Russian a platform by repeatedly mentioning him during the past two years. But in the end, none of that will convince spectators to drop $40 to $50 on a televised event.

What it really comes down to for Coker, whose Strikeforce promotions moved from a regional player to a national presence, isn't relying on a fan base. The key, he said, will be Affliction's marketing plan. Will promoting the event in retail stores or dropping flyers with each online sale really provide the kind of push Affliction requires?

"The acceptance has come," Greenberg said. "The sponsors have come. And the excitement is just now starting to percolate. So I think it's totally on the upswing."

• Despite fighting on the same card, it appears the Emelianenko brothers will not prepare together. Following Affliction's short press conference, Fedor said Aleksander, who fights Paul Buentello on FSN in the hour prior to the start of the July 19 pay-per-view broadcast, would train at the Red Devil gym in St. Petersburg, Russia.

• Affliction was forced to move up its L.A.-New York press conferences because Fedor said he could not do them next week. The Russian is a stickler for an uninterrupted two-month training session in his hometown of Stary Oskol, and appears particularly focused on Sylvia. Once training camp starts, Fedor is expected to limit contact to the outside world. He should return to the United States for the event's final promotional efforts two weeks prior to the card at the Honda Center.

• Greenberg told SI.com that his network's live one-hour broadcast (8 p.m. ET) has been cleared in roughly 45 million homes. Along with Aleksander Emelianenko's fight with Buentello, featherweights Savant Young and Mark Hominick will also take the ring. With just 42 minutes of air time, it's unlikely a third bout will be shown live.

• There was no mention of Andrei "TBA" Arlovski on Tuesday, though Affliction did add a surprise with the announcement light heavyweight Antonio Rogerio Nogueira would fight an undisclosed opponent. Heavyweight Ben Rothwell, who's rumored to fight Arlovski if the Belarusian signs with Affliction, joked about the absence of his challenger. Talk from people close to the negotiations suggests the UFC remains very interested in retaining Arlovski, who would be the third former UFC heavyweight champion on the Affliction card if he frees himself to fight.

• Never tell Matt Lindland he can't do something. Absent from the Affliction press conference, the Olympic silver-medalist and top-10 ranked middleweight had more pressing things Tuesday -- like campaigning. Having upended Phyllis Thiemann in the Republican legislative primary, Lindland's next battle along his run for a seat in the Oregon legislature is with Democrat Suzanne VanOrman. But, even with his outside endeavors, "The Law" is still scheduled to fight Fabio Negao on July 19.

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