Foreign Intrigue: White’s 10-Year Plan

Are there really people in the world who don’t yet realize how much they’d enjoy watching grown men’s faces beaten into new and horrible shapes? If you believe Dana White, yes: in a quote that bounced online all weekend, the promoter told the Las Vegas Sun that the UFC “will be the biggest sport in the world by 2020.”

It’s the universal language of fighting, White believes, that makes the difference. “…these people in other countries don’t care about American football,” he wrote. “They didn’t grow up playing it and they’re not invested in American teams…I take two guys and put them in an octagon [sic] and they can use any martial art they want -- that transcends all culture barriers. Right now we are on some form of television in over 175 countries. We’re all human beings and we all ‘get’ fighting.”

The op-ed, which is clearly ghostwritten or transcribed by hands other than White’s for the simple reason that he would never, ever fail to capitalize “Octagon,” is fairly obnoxious in its assessment of the fight business model. It should go without saying -- and White doesn’t dispute -- that MMA will never reach the consistent heights of the NFL. 95.4 million people watched last year’s Superbowl, the result of American indoctrination into a sport that inspires religious attachment at the educational levels.

High schools have football teams; they do not have jiu-jitsu teams.

That leaves global domination. But no U.S. sports franchise has ever captured foreign attention with any real regularity. And while White can say fighting is a barrier-breaker, the fact remains that cultural and environmental stop signs remain. China’s MMA scene remains woefully underdeveloped thanks to a government that sees no point in backing athletes without Olympic potential; the United Arab Emirates, which will host a UFC in the winter, is mired in financial devastation. Where are all these countries that will fuel and fund branch UFC organizations? And would the UFC even relinquish control, outsourcing their product to territories where they couldn’t have absolute authority?

It’s a practical idea to take the UFC on tour, but to actually settle down in a country is another matter. Even Japan, which for years was absolutely in love with the sport, has seen interest and business plummet. In nearly 10 years of promotion, Zuffa has failed to reach either Japan or Brazil with a live broadcast -- two seemingly obvious choices to pitch stakes.

Will the UFC grow in the next decade? Absolutely. Is fighting a universal language? Maybe. Will enough people find that kind of violence entertaining when some countries are still ankle-deep in their own blood? Unlikely. Everyone “gets” fighting, but that doesn’t mean everyone likes it.