By Christopher Roche – Commentary – Brand identity, international teams and championship rings are no longer exclusive to leagues such as Major League Baseball or the NBA. The International Fight League (IFL) is capitalizing on the worldwide hunger for warrior sports, and it is breaking new ground with every show that takes place. Like baseball and basketball, the IFL has teams outside of America, but unlike those two sports, the IFL has something that would make those sports somewhat jealous: an average of 90% attendance at their shows.
The first time I watched an MMA event was in the early 1990’s. One of the IFL’s current competitors used to brag about “an event with no rules”, and while I had little interest in men fighting in a cage for something less than sport, I was visiting someone’s house, and he ordered the event on pay-per-view. Since I am a lifelong boxing fan, I was disgusted with what I saw, and like many boxing fans, I turned my back on MMA, I thought for good.
Recently George Willis began mentioning the IFL in the New York Post. Since I have the utmost respect for George’s judgment, I decided to tune in to the next IFL event. What I saw amazed me. One of the matches being shown that day was Chris “The Polish Hammer” Horodecki vs. Shad Lierley, which turned out to be one of the fights of the year. After watching Horodecki for a few moments, I turned to my wife and said, “He looks like a young Arturo Gatti!”
Horodecki bounced around the ring (not a cage) like a seasoned boxer, and Lierley fought gamely. The two competitors left nothing to spare, and the 19 year-old Horodecki took a narrow decision. The bout was exciting, and it emphasized the skill and sport of fighting, not the no holds-barred mantra of other leagues. Unfortunately for Horodecki my Gatti comparison may be too accurate, as he recently injured his hand and will miss his next match.
The IFL is a very young league, and when I decided to explore their business model, Jerry Milani, Public Relations Manager for the IFL, generously granted access to the IFL’s New York City headquarters. Milani pointed out that while 2007 is the first full season for the IFL, where all 12 teams competed, the league had two smaller tournaments last year, with four teams entered in their initial effort and eight entries in their sophomore effort. Milani said that all of the matches count toward the official statistics, which are kept by the IFL’s office, and the initial matches were not exhibitions.
One important distinction between the IFL and some other leagues is that the IFL holds their matches in a ring, as opposed to a cage. Milani said, “We like the ring because that is more what a traditional sport would be.” Milani went on to point out that the ring makes it easier for the fans to see the action. Further, in a cage a competitor can be trapped against the fence, but in a ring, the ropes do not allow for that hard boundary. According to Milani, the ring also helps the IFL portray a positive image that fits with its broadcast partners on regular television and basic cable.
The IFL’s matches are limited to three rounds, and Milani explained that the fewer rounds allow for more action at a faster pace, because the fighters cannot wait until the later rounds for the opponent to tire out. Another distinction between the IFL and some other MMA organizations is that the IFL has four-minute rounds instead of five. Milani said studies show that four-minute rounds are safer for the athletes. The IFL is very concerned with safety; the league complies with the various state commissions, and Milani said the events are all sanctioned.
“Every place we have an event we work with the athletic commission. All of our events are sanctioned”, said Milani. “We work closely with the commissions and in most cases our requirements go beyond what the commissions require.”
Milani also mentioned that the IFL is not hoping to take the place of boxing, but rather, it is looking to co-exist with the sweet science. Milani pointed out that basketball and hockey are played in the same arena, but the two sports are not mutually exclusive. Fans can follow both, and he believes that a rising tide for boxing can lift the IFL and vice-versa.
“I don’t think being a boxing fan means you cannot be an MMA fan or vice-versa”, explained Milani. “I think a lot of people who are traditional boxing fans would love the sport if they followed it and did not see it as a threat.”
Milani went on to explain that because of the team format, there is no “matchmaking” process, as you would see in boxing and many MMA organizations. At the beginning of the season, fans and competitors can check the schedule and see who is fighting whom. The venues are chosen so fans can plan their ticket purchases and circle the dates on their calendars in advance. Once the teams announce their starting five fighters (1 for each weight class), the individual match-ups are set for the whole season, and barring injury, the announced cards will generally proceed as planned. If an injury occurs, the coach may choose a suitable replacement, usually from his own camp or “Den”, and the replacement is presented to the IFL for final approval.
According to Milani, the athletes who start the season with a particular team are independent contractors, but they are bound to the team for the whole season. Thus, athletes who start the season with one team cannot switch teams during the season. However, if an athlete comes to a team as an in-season replacement, then he can switch teams. Milani compares the IFL’s in-season replacement fighter to the NBA’s version of the 10-day contract. The replacement athletes may come in for one match and then go to another team after their match is over.
The compensation for the athletes is based on a salary as well as posted bonuses throughout the year. Athletes earn bonuses for appearances, wins, knockouts and other individual honors. Athletes also earn bonuses for team victories, and if the team wins the championship, athletes are awarded IFL championship rings. Milani said that while belts are issued for individual awards, championship rings are more practical for the athletes because they can proudly display them on a day-to-day basis.
As of now, all of the teams are owned by the IFL. The teams are not franchised, like in other sports, and there are no trades between the teams. Currently the teams are coached by some of the biggest names in MMA, such as Pat Miletich, Renzo Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Ken Yasuda. The coaches hold open tryouts to fill their ranks. Sponsorships are handled through the IFL’s league office, and if a sponsor wants to align with a particular team or athlete, the IFL will accommodate the sponsor.
The 2007 IFL Championship Semi-Finals take place at the Continental Airlines Arena in the New Jersey Meadowlands on August 2. The final four consists of the Los Angeles Anacondas, New York Pitbulls, Tokyo Sabres and Quad Cities Silverbacks. The teams are seeded based on their overall records, and in the event of a tie, the IFL looks at the individual match records as a tiebreaker. The IFL sets up a jumbotron to complement the action in the ring, and the fans will be able to see all of the action clearly. The event will not be broadcast live, but the television date will be announced.
Milani said that for 2008 the IFL plans to field teams in England and Brazil. The logistics are still being worked out, and it is not certain whether the IFL will expand or rebalance two existing teams to fill the new slots. The official announcement regarding the new teams will come from the IFL’s league office.
Milani summed up the attraction of the IFL, which is similar to other sports. He said, “There is an unpredictability in mixed martial arts, and it is due to the nature of the sport.” He went on to explain there is such a small margin for error in the ring, and the fighters can be stopped or submitted at almost any time.
The unpredictability is what initially drew me to boxing, and it is present in sports like football and baseball as well, but to a somewhat lesser extent. The thought of a knockout coming at any time is akin to a long touchdown run or a towering homerun with the bases loaded. Strategy and skill always play into the game, but ultimately the unpredictability that occurs when top athletes compete against each other is what keeps the fans coming back. I believe the IFL is on the right track, and I plan to cover the IFL as a supplement to my normal boxing beat.
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