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For regional promoters, finding fighters who sell tickets might be more important than scouting future champs

Say you’re a regional fight promoter. Say this is how you make your living, putting on fights, selling tickets and VIP tables and sponsorships and anything else you can so that you still have some money left over after the fighters are paid.

How are you supposed to accomplish that, exactly? How do you ensure that you don’t go broke trying to be a small-town Dana White?

If you ask the guys at CES MMA in New England, they’ll point you to their featherweight champion Matt Bessette. It’s guys like Bessette, they say, who make their business model work – and not just because he’s a good fighter, though that helps.

But what really makes him a great catch for a regional promoter is something very simple: Bessette sells tickets. In fact, he sells hundreds of them, which can make all the difference between success and failure for a fight promoter.

“If every fighter we had was like Matt, our jobs would be really easy,” said CES MMA President Jimmy Burchfield. “He’s a true professional. And he’s so organized, he doesn’t just sell the tickets. He can tell you exactly who’s coming to see his fight, where they’re sitting, everything.”

Bessette, 32, has good motivation to sell tickets to his own fights. According to his contract with CES MMA, he gets a commission of every ticket he sells, whether personally or with an online code. Neither Bessette nor CES MMA would say exactly what percentage he pockets on ticket sales, but according to other promoters the sales commission for a popular fighter can range from 20 all the way up to 45 percent.

For Bessette (21-7), who said he typically sells between 200 and 300 tickets to every one of his CES MMA fights, that can translate to a significant sum in the end.

“I’ve always had a pretty big following, a lot of friends, and it just got more and more,” Bessette said. “I sold close to 500 (tickets) once at the Mohegan Sun, and that was the real eye-opener. By now people know, hey, he can sell tickets. Even if I wasn’t as good as I am, I’d probably still be on cards, just because promoters need to make that money.”

This is the reality for most regional fight promoters, who can’t count on TV revenues to bolster their coffers. Ticket sales make up the vast majority of their earnings, many said, often somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 percent or more.

For Brett Roberts, the CEO of BAMMA USA, which promotes fights primarily in California, having reliable ticket-sellers on each card is crucial.

“Sponsorships aren’t much at this level,” Roberts said. “If they’re there, they want to do trade-offs or something like that. Before you sell one ticket in California, you’re out of pocket close to $25,000, just from commission requirements, insurance requirements, purses. If you don’t have someone who can sell tickets, you’re wasting your money, just like I have at times.”

But figuring out which fighters will fill an arena can be tricky. The UFC can get by with one or two locals on a fight card that’s otherwise stocked with name talent from all over the world, but at a small event in Illinois, simply being from the area is too common a trait to be a meaningful appeal for a fighter.

That’s why for Danielle Vale, who runs Hoosier Fight Club in Indiana, scouting becomes an important side job as a promoter.

“Some of it is word of mouth,” Vale said. “Somebody tells you, ‘Hey, so-and-so is big in the Russian community. Get him on your next card and they’ll come out to support him.’ Social media is also great. You can see how many people are following each fighter, how engaged the fighter is with the fans.”

Social media can also serve another function, Vale said. In addition to helping promoters gauge fighter popularity, it also helps promoters keep an eye on what their fighters are up to, which is important when one key withdrawal could mean the difference between a full house and a mostly empty one on fight night.

“You kind of get a heads-up when a fight might go south,” Vale said. “If you see someone at Taco Tuesdays two weeks before a fight and they’re posting about it on Facebook and I’m like, ‘Is that a margarita in front of him?’ Then you know that you need to work on your plan B.”

That’s the other part about relying on a select few fighters to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to ticket sales. Big promotions aren’t the only ones who have to deal with injury withdrawals or bad weight cuts or just old-fashioned bad luck. And if one of the fighters who pulls out happens to be the scheduled opponent for the evening’s big attraction, that’s a problem that needs to be remedied.

As Iowa Challenge promoter Chad Bergmeier said when explaining his affection for Kenneth Allen, a fighter with a prodigious losing streak, having “standby fighters” can be vital to the success of a regional promoter.

“At this level, ticket sales are everything,” Bergmeier told MMAjunkie in 2014. “… If you have a guy who’s sold 150 tickets, you can’t have that guy not fight.”

Hoosier Fight Club found itself in just such a jam last month, when a fighter named Kenneth Glenn was forced from the main event lightweight title fight opposite Mike Santiago two days before weigh-ins.

“Mike had put in a full training camp, plus he sold a lot of tickets,” HFC’s Vale said. “You’re in that situation where you put your eggs in this basket, and now you’re going to lose those ticket sales, plus the energy in the room just won’t be the same if you don’t have him on the card.”

In those situations, Vale said, you’d better have a backup you can call, preferably one with a reputation for staying in shape. In this case, HFC called Nicholas Wayne, who not only took the fight, but sold an extra 50 tickets himself in just two days’ time.

“That matters so much, because the thing with this sport is, you need to have a full venue,” Vale said. “If you have 400 people in a venue, that’s only good if the venue seats 400 people.”

One downside to expending so much time and energy on a few popular fighters is that, if the fighters have talent to match their drawing power, they don’t often stick around the regional circuit for long. Either the UFC or Bellator comes calling, and soon they’re selling tickets for someone else, leaving their former promoter looking for a way to fill the gaps.

That’s simply part of the business, according to CES MMA’s Burchfield. And in one sense, it’s a good thing.

“We want people to know that CES is that platform that helps fighters get to the next level,” Burchfield said.

But then, if the UFC came for Bessette, who already amassed a respectable 7-2 mark during occasional Bellator appearances, it would likely cost CES MMA a considerable sum in the short term.

The flip side is that, considering the UFC’s typical starting pay of $10,000 to show for a first-time fighter, Bessette might very well be taking a pay cut by giving up his CES MMA purse and commission from ticket sales, all just to fight in the big show.

“I’ve thought about that,” Bessette said. “At that point, do I want to achieve a goal, or do I want to make a little bit more money if I fight one extra time a year with CES? I might make an extra six or seven thousand dollars if I stay. Is that going to make the difference for me? But money isn’t the only goal for me. When I’m an old man, I think I’d rather be able to say that I didn’t say no to the UFC when they called.”

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