So, you still wanna be an f’ing MMA fan, huh?
Well, the requirements to fit into that top-tier hardcore slot have changed a bit over the last couple years. Gone are the days of making sure you’re home for every televised fight card. Also history? Knowing every fighter, their names, records and affiliations. It is an impossible task for just about every fan save those with a photographic memory.
The “new normal,” as I like to call it, is more akin to being a fan of other sports. You have the big fights (games) that you never want to miss, as well as your favorite fighters (teams) that you do your best to catch on a regular basis, and then you have the rest.
The surprising growth experienced by the sport’s biggest and longest-tenured promotion, Ultimate Fighting Championship, in the middle of last decade took MMA from the backwoods of the sports world to the precipice of being a mainstream entity. The UFC’s landmark deal with Fox Sports in 2011 nudged it even closer. With their bold global expansion, UFC parent company Zuffa is hoping to achieve a true worldwide mainstream audience and could very well accomplish that goal in the next few years.
The downside to all of this growth and the globalization of the company is the oversaturation of the sport and the watering down of the product for the time being. I don’t think anyone can make an argument that the increased number of shows has not hurt the brand, and I have no intention of trying to argue against that point. What I will argue, though, is the fact that what is good for the company as a whole just might not jibe with what fans from North American markets might want.
I have heard a ton of negativity spewed from my colleagues about the UFC’s expansion, and I agree it is a tough look right now for the sport’s premier promoter. That said, the end game is what seems to be in focus for the suits in the Zuffa executive suite.
Some might think this is a pretty big gamble. I am one of them. We have seen exponential growth in places like Brazil and Canada, but there are also lagging markets like Europe that have just never justified the return on the UFC’s investment. That may be turning now with bonafide stars like Sweden’s Alexander Gustafsson and Ireland’s Conor McGregor in the mix. We have seen it in Brazil, where a plethora of champions and contenders helped put the sport over.
We have also seen what happens when the stars from local markets aren’t as successful or active. Brazil has suffered from the title losses of Anderson Silva, Junior dos Santos and Renan Barao. Canada has been on a milk carton since Georges St. Pierre retired... er, took a break.
It is the stars of the sport who are going to drive the future success or failure of the UFC and MMA as a whole. Opening up more and more markets to find those stars doesn’t seem like such a bad plan when you look at it in that light.
What is becoming apparent is that the “oversaturation” will not be ending anytime soon. It makes sense in the regard that, as the company looks to expand, Zuffa must keep the beachheads it has already established elsewhere or risk losing the momentum they have gained in those locales. Throw in a Fox deal -- one that pays the company roughly $1 billion over seven years -- which calls for 20-plus live events per year, as well as “The Ultimate Fighter,” and it has been a recipe for MMA fatigue in North America despite increased demand in other markets.
When you look at it from another perspective -- a view UFC President Dana White has reiterated time and again -- there just aren’t enough fights in some of the markets the company is trying to infiltrate. Look at the Ireland card from last month. If you don’t think they want to go back there as often as the market will support them, then you are crazy.
What we end up with is a tricky balancing act. Ultimately, there is a trade-off going on here. It seems Zuffa is content to take the short-term hit in hopes of reaping the benefits of a long-term global outlook.
I can’t say I am a huge fan of the current iteration of MMA. On the flip side, I will be the first to admit that if the UFC’s plan to globalize the promotion works out in just a few of the key markets they are seeding at the moment then it will benefit the entire sport long term.
Think of this era as a time of growing pains, but also think of it as the time of a big paradigm shift in how fans view the sport of mixed martial arts. In the past, a lot of fans, not just the hardest of the hardcore, wouldn’t dare miss a fight. Reported pay-per-view numbers would indicate that just isn’t the case anymore. The basement numbers have submarined all the way down to the 100,000 benchmark when just a few years ago that number hovered up around 300,000 or higher.
The new normal for fans seems to be to catch what they can when they are home or watch the loads of free programming offered up on the myriad Fox networks via DVR at their own leisure. That leaves the less appealing PPV broadcasts as the first casualties, in the North American market anyway.
I remember noted MMA and pro-wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer telling me years ago that by teaching fans that they can pick and choose which events they were going to buy, the UFC was heading down the same thorny path the WWE did with their PPV business. According to Meltzer -- and his wisdom has borne out to be very prescient over the last few years -- once that happens, fans just don’t return to being a “buy everything” kind of consumer.
This brings us back to the idea of the trade-off. To get something, you usually have to give something up. In pushing into these potentially fertile global markets, the benefits. should Zuffa be successful, will clearly outweigh the dangers... but it is far from a slam-dunk.
I know it isn’t the message most longtime, hardcore MMA fans want to hear, but a viewer base consisting of a world full of “new normal” fans is much more appealing to the powers that be than a small collection of North Americans who could double as historians of the sport.
Greg Savage is the Executive Editor of Sherdog.com and can be reached via @TheSavageTruth on Twitter.