What does it take to get over with fans? It’s the million dollar question that marks the dividing line between a gimmick of the moment and a product that has established its presence in the market—the continuum, in our case, that Glory finds itself inching along in its slow crawl to stability and legitimacy. There’s an expectation that ‘getting over’ amounts to finding a moment that will make its mark in the minds of fans—in the collective consciousness of the sports entertainment universe—and to seizing the opportunity to rocket the brand into orbit. Creating that moment is something that Glory has pursued relentlessly, putting its highlight-making fighters like Joe Schilling and Raymond Daniels on TV with regular frequency. For its trouble, the highlights are adding up, and Glory has amassed a fight library that could now fill dead airtime with countless hours of syndicated content (are you listening, SpikeTV?). There’s a sense that Glory’s efforts are adding up to something, but for many fans in the kickboxing community, talk is cheap and there exists a healthy skepticism about Glory’s future. After a very tumultuous 2014, one could be forgiven for continuing to feel let down by Glory, which is why I think it is important to take a step back and reevaluate Glory’s place in the kickboxing world during these last few months.
At this time, Glory is the only truly legitimate international outlet for high level kickboxing competition. Kunlun may be a rising product in China, but for now, its televised reach doesn’t extend far beyond its domestic borders. K-1 has the top-tier featherweight talent, but again, it’s strictly a Japan-only product. Other organizations have been promoting fights in Europe and China, but so far no other major international players have emerged. We’ve seen some activity in the Middle East with ‘family-friendly’ promotion GFC, but so far GFC hasn’t demonstrated that it will amount to more than yet another show that threw money around for a little while—with no international television distribution and questionable attendance, we can’t confidently speculate about its future.
This is not to say that my outlook on Glory is any rosier, but it so far shows the most promise out of the promotions comprising the kickboxing landscape at this time. That said, some fans, including me, hold Glory responsible for possibly damaging the market for elite kickboxing talent during the promotion’s initial days, more-so than anyone who has come before or since. While for obvious reasons there is no specific information out there, the rumored story is that the talent acquired by Glory after the fall of K-1 was signed to compete under contracts which allegedly paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars per fight. These huge payouts readily attracted K-1’s superstars but also had the effect of greatly inflating their value. Some of these fighters, like Tyrone Spong and Gokhan Saki, may be in a position now where they won’t accept a contract for market value because it would mean not earning the money that they now feel entitled to make. However, it doesn’t make sense for Glory to continue compensating them at such a high rate if they aren’t going to be huge television draws, especially now that Glory has made forays into developing grassroots talent. It puts fighters like Saki and Spong in the position where they must seek out promoters who are willing to meet their new asking price. What that usually amounts to when it comes to the business of kickboxing are more inexperienced promoters who will throw that kind of money around in an effort to quickly establish a presence but who will also more often than not quickly fold after realizing the magnitude of loss associated with having no plan to achieve sustainability. At one point I would have included Glory in that category, but they’ve made sacrifices and changes to their roster and production which I feel reflect a desire to become sustainable. They—specifically Pierre Andurand—could have cut their losses and pulled out a long time ago like so many before him if that’s what they wanted to do. Instead, the Glory of today is a scaled-down organization that is focusing on developing talent at market value and establishing a presence on television.
Some may tout the European market and its potential, but there has never been any indication that operating there is any more sustainable than operating in the United States. Sure, attendance has been traditionally high, but so far no organization has become a breakout success. It’s Showtime is no more, and the other organizations like Enfusion are strictly small-scale. SuperKombat is looking like the only potential exception, and to its credit it has outlasted many competitors while occupying a solid spot on EuroSport. Nevertheless, it has stayed out of the elite-level talent market, opting instead to cultivate local fighters in Eastern Europe.
The real challenge of promoting the sport of kickboxing is not merely limited to putting butts in seats or big fights on TV—it’s in actually recovering money from the whole enterprise. If there is any market where the potential exists to grow kickboxing into a legitimate business, it is in the Americas. This is very much New World vs. Old World: in the New World, kickboxing has the chance to find its own legs and grow as a sports entertainment product on its own merit. In the Old World, kickboxing is an attraction traditionally staged by people with no apparent entrepreneurial aspirations, and we’ve seen—time and time again—the promotion of the week come and go. This doesn’t mean that Europe doesn’t have the potential for an organization to build itself up as a self-sustaining business, but so far the European kickboxing world has been anything but focused on that goal. I feel like the difference here needs to be more widely understood. Kickboxing has never had a more important opportunity than it does now with SpikeTV and Glory. People may (rightfully) criticize some of the talent and matchmaking decisions at Glory 21, for example, but don’t lose sight of the big picture and what Glory is trying to accomplish. It is trying to make money out of a sport that doesn’t make money.
And for it’s trouble, the effort seems to be adding up. Ratings are stable, DVR numbers are up, and Spike has taken enough of an interest in Glory to broadcast its first live overseas event in Glory 22, going down June 5 at 4pm Eastern time. The promotion has attracted the attention of sports entertainment celebrities like Bill Goldberg, who is lending his talents inside and outside of the ring—and especially where it counts: in front of the cameras. Glory is being name dropped by the likes of Dolph Lundgren, and Goldberg’s involvement has even attracted the attention of the TMZ. For all of the false starts and missteps over the last few years, the ball feels like it’s finally beginning to roll, and 2015 may turn out to be a bright year for Glory—if we give it a chance. Because, as it turns out, there is no alternative.