The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 242 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
On Aug. 31, Weili Zhang shocked the world when she dethroned Jessica Andrade and became the Ultimate Fighting Championship strawweight champion in just under a minute. Both women threw heavy punches right out of the gate, but it was Zhang who landed a right hook that hurt the Brazilian and who then used brutal knees in the clinch to get the TKO victory. Later that night at the post-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White lauded the first-ever Chinese champion’s performance, stating that, “Weili Zhang became a huge star tonight globally, not just here in China.” With 40 million video views, holding the top search on China’s versions of Google and Twitter (Baidu and Weibo) and getting a mention on China Central television, it’s fair to assume that the UFC got more eyes on the sport from the region than ever before.
China’s not the only region in which the promotion plans to expand its audience. This week, the UFC will make a trip to Abu Dhabi, where Khabib Nurmagomedov will defend his lightweight championship against interim lightweight titleholder Dustin Poirier. The event has garnered attention from prominent figures in the area, including sheiks, princes, and friendly dictators who will almost certainly attend the event. The country even built an arena specifically for the upcoming 155-pound title showdown.
The above are just a few examples of how MMA, now more than ever, is expanding beyond its traditional core markets. While the United States and for a short time Japan ruled the modern MMA scene, their dominance in holding live MMA events is not what it used to be. As promotions race to grow their brands in new and emerging markets in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, Americans can expect more and more events to be held overseas rather than their own backyard.
One need only look at the past year to see the shift. Bellator announced a European Series, which guarantees several live events on the continent per year and has made signings reflecting a heavier focus in the European market. The UFC held 23 of 39 events in the United States in 2018, and while the promotion has a total of 42 planned events for this year, only 22 of them are scheduled to be stateside. One Championship has taken a heavier interest in China, having held nine events to this point in 2019 in the country compared to having held just two there in 2018.
This is not to say that America won’t still play the largest role in the success of bigger MMA promotions for quite some time. The broadcast media rights deal between ESPN and the UFC being a success for both parties is due in large part to stateside consumers signing up for ESPN+ and using the streaming service to purchase pay-per-view events. Bellator still holds the majority of their events in the US and relies on their gate for a significant part of their total revenue.
Continued growth over time is the main goal, however, and in order to continue to grow MMA promotions need to expand their brand exposure. It’s unlikely that without another superstar like Ronda Rousey or Conor McGregor the UFC will generate a significant number of new fans in the US in the near future. Although over time the sport could become more popular overall in America, promotions get far more bang for their buck by moving their brands into areas with little to no exposure, building a new hardcore fanbase instantaneously just by holding an event in the region.
Couple that ideal with a burgeoning number of international fighters like Nurmagomedov and Zhang and the decision to focus on overseas markets is a no-brainer. Part of what made Conor McGregor popular from the outset was that almost the whole country of Ireland was behind him, and by default that raised his profile before he even started spouting off some of his famous catchphrases. As mentioned before, Zhang’s popularity in China skyrocketed after her championship victory this past Saturday, and videos of Nurmagomedov have been in the millions in the buildup to UFC 242, with much of the Muslim community supporting the Dagestani champion. If they continue to put on impressive performances and manage to secure long championship reigns, they could be the answer the UFC has been looking for in the superstar department.
The overall global expansion of MMA is a good thing for both fans and promotions. The bigger the sport becomes, the bigger events and fights the promotions can put on for the fans. There are still several untapped regions like Africa and India in which organizations can establish a presence, so it's unlikely that the drift away from the US will cease or reverse course any time soon—in which case, American fans might want to get used to the idea of MMA being a truly global sport.