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When MMA exploded in North American popularity in 2005-07, it was not uncommon to hear bold proclamations about how big the sport would eventually get. It was on the rise, and some of its advocates, who loved the action and excitement inherent to the competition, thought the growth would never level off. Famously, UFC President Dana White predicted that MMA would one day surpass soccer in global popularity.
A decade and a half later, those expectations have become much more measured. Thus, when entrepreneur and investor Gary Vaynerchuk argued this week that MMA will be one of the three biggest sports in the world in 15 years, it was widely dismissed and, in some circles, ridiculed by fans and media members. MMA has gotten so much exposure already, the argument goes, and mainstream sports fans have clearly shown they are just not that interested in an inherently violent sport.
Perhaps I’m hopelessly naïve and optimistic on this front, having argued vociferously about the marketability of MMA as far back as 2000 based on the success of Pride Fighting Championships in Japan, but I remain firmly committed to the upward potential of the sport. Perhaps MMA as a Top 3 sport in 15 years is overly optimistic, but if that is so, it’s because of the sport’s financial model and not a lack of potential in the core product that is being offered.
The major sport MMA most closely resembles, with its violence and free-flowing action, is American football. That’s not coincidentally the most popular sport in the United States by a wide margin. The NFL has worked to make the sport safer, but the concussions and big hits never worked much against the popularity of the sport. MMA clearly turns off some with its violence, but violence has always been overrated as a limiting factor.
This isn’t going to come as a shock to ardent MMA fans, but the sport is as inherently exciting as any sport can be. The ability to win at any moment, no matter how far you are down, adds stakes to every second. The variety of techniques means there are so many ways to win, and as Joaquin Buckley showed at UFC Fight Night 179, you’re constantly surprised by what high-end fighters can pull off. Then there is the inherent appeal of hand-to-hand combat. It’s striking to me that anyone who invests as much time as it now takes to follow MMA closely would doubt its captivating appeal. The sport itself is not limiting; other factors are.
Those of us who follow MMA closely just accept the Ultimate Fighting Championship model as built-in. We’re used to it. Yet, it still has by far the most fan-limiting financial model among all the major sports. If you want to watch the championship game or series in basketball, football, hockey or baseball, you can get it for free on network television or basic cable. If you want to watch a top MMA fight, you need to subscribe to ESPN+ annually for $49.99 and then order the individual card for $64.99. To watch all the major events, you’re looking at an annual commitment of over $800.
Putting aside the cost, there’s also the volume. One of the reasons for football’s popularity is that it has a 16-game season that’s easily digestible and then goes away. All the major team sports have long offseasons for fans to get a breather and to look forward to the return. Fans also have the local team through which everything filters. It provides an easy starting point for any fan. By contrast, MMA runs year-round, with constant shows featuring double-digit fights in 12 major weight divisions. It’s a daunting time commitment for any fan to follow, and if you want to just check out the biggest events, it’s going to set you back a significant chunk of money.
When MMA has occasionally put its biggest stars on free television, it has generally done quite well. Tito Ortiz-Ken Shamrock 3, Kevin Ferguson-Roy Nelson and Quinton Jackson-Dan Henderson all did better peak ratings than Game 6 of the NBA Finals, which featured LeBron James winning his fourth championship. That is of course not to suggest MMA is currently in the league of the NBA in this country; it is however to suggest that it might not be in that different of ballparks were the UFC to regularly put the likes of Jon Jones and Conor McGregor on NBC or Fox and get casual fans accustomed to checking out the biggest free UFC events.
It’s understandable why the UFC has taken the approach it has. The combination of putting its biggest events on pay-per-view and filling tons of programming hours means more money in the short term. However, I think it’s shortsighted to draw broad conclusions about inherent limitations to MMA’s popularity when it’s so much less accessible to casual sports fans than all of its competition. It’s no accident that in markets where the barriers to fan entry have been much smaller—Brazil, Russia, Japan, Poland and Mexico, for example—television ratings have done extremely well at different points. Doubt MMA’s medium-term success if you desire, but don’t doubt its potential.