The UFC has been there. EliteXC also has paid a visit.
However, neither promotion is the answer to this question: which organization has drawn the largest mixed martial arts crowd in Florida?
That distinction resides with Xtreme Fighting Championships. If XFC doesn't exactly ring a bell, you're not alone.
"I've never heard of them, and we have 52 fighters under contract and another 45 on our prospect list," said Ken Pavia, one of the sport's top agents and an MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
Pavia lives and breathes MMA, and the upstart organization isn't even on his radar, but, amazingly, Tampa-based XFC has staged four shows in the Sunshine State, and each has produced a bigger live gate than any other promotion in the state's history.
Most recently, an XFC event at the St. Pete Times Forum on June 28 drew a crowd of 10,700. Last November, an estimated 11,000 fans flocked to the same arena for an XFC show, and the promotion is expecting some 15,000 in the seats for its Sept. 13 event, featuring former UFC heavyweight Gan McGee.
"We just know how to promote," said XFC President and co-founder John Prisco. "We go to the largest venues; we go on the street, and we go out into the community. We introduce ourselves, and we tell them about the sport. We educate the public. We also have a very strong affiliation with the military. All the military come as our guest to all our shows."
Prisco is an entrepreneur who rode the wave of Florida's real estate boom a few years ago and found himself flush with cash. Seeing the signs of the pending bust in real estate and the growing interest in MMA, Prisco sunk some of his earnings into the formation of XFC in January of 2006.
Five events later, XFC is the best-kept secret in the sport.
Crowds north of 10,000 would be the envy of other start-up promotions, such as Adrenaline MMA, American Fight League and even EliteXC. Prisco credits the league's grassroots approach to promoting events and offering affordable ticket prices for XFC's early success.
"I have professional photographers come to our events, and the shot that I ask them to take, first and foremost, is to shoot the arena because no one would believe it. They would just think it was a promoter lying to the public," said Prisco about the crowds that turn out for XFC events. "But pictures don't lie, and that's why I post them on the Web site. You'd be surprised when you go into people's place of business and shake their hand and tell them about what we do and why we do it. We keep our price points low for tickets and offer a ton of entertainment. That's how we can make it happen."
While Prisco declined to provide details regarding the amount of "papering" (free tickets) XFC does for each event, he did say that, for the November 2007 show, there were more paid tickets than complimentary ones and that crowds are now "almost all paid."
With a $10 discount coupon, fans pay just 10 bucks for general admission to XFC shows. That includes access to pre-event vendor booths and entertainment. A cage-side seat costs only $50, with the costliest price of entry being a floor VIP table for $1,400.
"We're trying to activate a new fans base that has never seen these events before," Prisco said. "If you've been to a mixed martial arts event, you know that to see it is to love it. The main thing is to get them to the arena and expose them to our product. And the way we do shows, with the entertainment and the quality fights, they come to our shows, and they come back."
XFC has lured fans with fighters, who, on the national stage, are largely unknown but have a measure of name recognition locally. On the June card, for example, Florida high school wrestling legend Matt Juncal made his MMA debut and helped to move a significant number of tickets. Juncal won three state wrestling titles in three weight classes between 2003 and 2005 and didn't lose a match as a junior or senior. He submitted fellow first-timer Jeff Mansir in just 51 ticks.
Grassroots marketing with homegrown talent is a recipe that can work locally, and Prisco has plans to take that approach beyond Florida in 2009. In addition to four events in the Tampa/St. Pete area next year, XFC intends to travel to Tennessee and Kentucky and begin to produce shows on a monthly basis. There's also talk of a pay-per-view event in December of this year, and expanding to produce live shows on the island of Macau and in the Middle East, perhaps next year.
It's an ambitious plan for such a young organization, but Prisco, who managed professional boxers in the Tampa area earlier in his career, says the company is already operating in the black and has the financial means to grow.
"We're profitable now – not many promotions can say that. We plan on being here for quite a long time," he said. "We plan on being a leader, and we're showing that with the size of our shows and the quality of our product."
While XFC won't supplant the UFC as MMA's top draw anytime soon, Pavia believes the organization has a realistic opportunity to carve out a long-term niche.
"There's a place for this type of promotion in the sport," he said. "They help develop fighters and give them an opportunity to compete."