The Ultimate Fighting Championship has a $90-plus-million-dollar-a-year deal with Fox Sports; Bellator MMA is owned by Viacom; and the World Series of Fighting recently inked a new agreement with NBC Sports that looks similar to the kind of deal that Main Events has to broadcast fight programs.
What does this all mean, and what are the expectations now when it comes to the pros and cons of mixed martial arts programming on television? Twenty years ago, the prospect of multiple promotions having television deals on cable was unimaginable. Many of today’s MMA fans did not grow up during the early days of the UFC, so their expectations are much higher when it comes to what kind of MMA product should be on television and how much promoters should be making with these television deals.
The truth is that non-UFC promoters should be counting their blessings that they are able to secure television time without actually having to pay for it.
There is this push-and-pull dynamic amongst many hardcore MMA fans, not only to see MMA on television but to also have TV executives subsidize most of it. That is not always how the television world works. If you are in the professional wrestling business and trying to get your product on television, good luck getting access without paying substantial money for the time. The same can be said for other “minor” sports like Arena football. What is most important right now is to have television executives still be responsive to the idea of airing MMA content. At least they have not closed the doors on promoters not named the UFC.
The UFC was able to secure $90 million dollars a year from Fox Sports for several reasons. First, timing is everything. Fox Sports 1 needed a cornerstone property onto which to build their channel, and the UFC was right there to help it out. Second, the UFC can provide voluminous amounts of live and taped programming. If you have looked at a lot of the ratings for programming on Fox Sports 1, you can see why the UFC is viewed so positively in the Fox empire. Third, the UFC is the kind of cable property that is great to have when you are going to the bargaining table with cable and satellite distributors to ask for a raise in carriage fees. There is brand power, and that brand power can contribute to immediate cash. Fox Sports understands this concept quite well with the creation of the Big Ten Network, which received a boost with lowly Rutgers University. Instantly, Fox increased the amount of television customers paying the carriage fee of BTN regardless of whether or not they care about Rutgers or the New York-New Jersey television market.
The story for non-UFC properties like Bellator and World Series of Fighting is a different ball of wax. Fans should be happy that alternatives exist on different platforms. That in itself is a victory. Because the UFC is the industry leader, most television executives look at MMA as a cable and social media property with a young demographic that is excitable. However, it is not the kind of audience that can expand in size the way a major boxing fight can. In one sense, MMA is now comfortably locked into a position where it is the grown-up brother of professional wrestling but still not as big as a major league boxing property; and that is OK.
Think about some of the inherent roadblocks that MMA has to overcome with television executives. Unfortunately, the sport is filthy when it comes to doping. In many ways, it is like horse racing. That will not stop your casual fan from watching, but it is a negative. Many MMA fighters also are lumped into the stereotypical categories of being overly tanned, tattooed goofs who are off their rocker and liable to commit crimes. The NFL is full of athletes that have run afoul of the law, but that has not hurt the league’s bottom line. Image and perception is everything. Frankly, it is a miracle that television executives are as receptive as they are to MMA today. So many critics have thrown so much against the wall to prevent the sport from actually developing and maturing into what it has become.
A look at the last 10 years on the North American scene gives us a pretty good clue as to where MMA stands as a television property and what issues need to be addressed in order to get network suits to invest more money in the sport. When Gary Shaw made his splash with EliteXC on Showtime and CBS, he burned through $50 million dollars of Pro Elite stockholder cash. When the International Fight League came on the scene via MyNetworkTV, it was promising major league blue-chip sponsors that would invest money in the promotion and into backing fighters. We saw some blue-chip sponsors like Microsoft, but they were not really paying much at all for the exposure. Strikeforce required financial backing from Silicon Valley business partners involved with the San Jose Sharks and the HP Pavilion.
A lot of network executives and sponsors are unwilling to pony up the cash to invest in shows like they have with bigger boxing fights. MMA is good at attracting a young demographic that is active on social media and there are some hardcore fans who bet money on MMA fights, but the amount of cash spent on MMA gambling is not even close to the amount of money that whales are willing to spend on boxing fights. Top Rank can attract Tecate and Golden Boy can attract Corona because boxing has a built-in, established fan base that not only supports the sport but is willing to spend money to buy products from companies that support the sport.
That leads us to the major hurdles MMA promoters have to address over the next 20 years if they want to see television networks and sponsors bring in the kind of financial support they currently reserve for big boxing fights.
The first benchmark is demonstrating to sponsors an ability to give their product exposure while also proving that the exposure will lead to a success conversion rate with consumers who are watching the fights. For the increased success the UFC has demonstrated with sponsors like Harley Davidson, it is difficult to point to an upstart or established company with which the UFC has worked and point to financials showing that the UFC’s support of advertisers has led to a significant increase in sales.
The second benchmark is demonstrating an ability to attract female viewers on a large scale. Sure, there are plenty of attractive women who go to live shows, but the television numbers indicate that MMA still is largely male-dominated when it comes to how much -- 80 percent -- of the audience for UFC on Fox Sports is comprised of men.
The third benchmark is demonstrating an ability to attract significant support from minorities. MMA still struggles with the characterization that the majority of viewers who watch the shows are young white males in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic. No matter what surveys are released to try to make the audiences between MMA and boxing look similar in terms of demographics, the reality is that boxing has Hispanic stars to which Latino audiences can relate, from Juan Manuel Marquez to Canelo Alvarez. The UFC does not yet have that major crossover star that can attract support amongst minorities in the sports fan community.
The fourth benchmark is demonstrating to television executives that MMA is more than just a “lifestyle” deal. If you have been a longtime supporter of MMA, you know exactly what kind of fan I am talking about and what that stereotype represents.
The fifth and most important benchmark that promoters must be able to demonstrate to television executives is an ability to create stars that not only sell tickets and PPVs but also find ways to make an impression in popular culture. Jon Jones is a brilliant fighter and absolute prodigy. So was Roy Jones Jr. However, Roy Jones Jr. did not become the household name many in boxing thought he could. Jon Jones has the same problem. That is why the UFC is banking so much on women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. The pressure is enormous. What makes it so challenging for promoters in MMA to develop major stars and find ways to get them integrated into popular culture is the fact that winning MMA fights is really, really difficult; and winning fights in big streaks is even tougher. The lifespan of an MMA fighter is often short, and to be really good at your craft, you have to spend a lot of time in the gym; you cannot be distracted. Look at what happened to Georges St. Pierre. How many GSPs are we going to see in our lifetime? Not too many.
If we want television executives to subsidize major MMA events, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. At this point, I am honestly just thankful that we have different avenues through which to watch MMA fights. It is better to have half a loaf of bread than no loaf at all.