Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC Doing Well, Still Not in Major Leagues

2009040861028_0_mediumThe echo chamber in the hardcore community is a powerful banshee, but some mainstream wax for your ears will do your perspective some good. Steve Sievert makes an important point: the UFC's business is improving in a time when larger, traditional sports are seeing some of their business decline. To wit:

The crowd of 21,451 that turned out for UFC 97 in April not only set a North American attendance record for MMA, it also topped this year's average home attendance of four Major League Baseball teams.

The Washington Nationals, Florida Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland Athletics are each averaging less than 21,400 fans for their home games through this past Saturday.

Welcome to the new normal in sports, where MLB is struggling to draw fans amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, yet the UFC is playing to large, raucous crowds wherever it travels. As recently as earlier this decade, no one in sports would have fathomed the possibility that an MMA event could draw a crowd larger than the average home attendance of one big-league baseball team, let alone four.

The development speaks to the continued popularity of the UFC and its status as a recession-proof draw. Overall, MLB attendance is down 10 percent this year. The UFC, on the other hand, hasn't missed a beat. The promotion is consistently selling 12,000 to 13,000 tickets for its pay-per-view events and occasionally hosts breakout shows with even larger crowds, such as UFC 97 in Montreal and next month's UFC 100 in Las Vegas.

With its UFC Fight Night franchise, the UFC has been winning the TV ratings battle in some key demographics with baseball for the past few years, and 2009 numbers at the turnstiles show that the UFC is holding up much better than some baseball teams in these difficult economic times.

Well, yes and no.

There's no denying the UFC's filling the venues it uses, that PPV purchases are up and that in a few circumstances, they've been able to set attendance records related to MMA. And I've been watching the television numbers of how ratings look in key male demos across all sports including MMA. The results are encouraging (of course, the other sports do a much better job capturing other audiences). But what does that mean exactly? Well, it means relative to the financial returns of some traditional sports this past year, the UFC is doing well. However, because the UFC and MMA are significantly smaller operations and therefore the potential growth curve so much higher, mainstream traditional sports are still far, far larger enterprises even if they cannot boast similar financial success.

The UFC may be able to occasionally put together an event large enough to match what mainstream sports can routinely offer, but those are few and far between and as articulated in the quoted piece, the average crowd for UFC events is far lower than 20,000. That's notable. The baseball teams mentioned in the article aren't exactly hot tickets in baseball. Not one of those teams is above .500 and the Nationals are the butt of every non-Wizards sports joke in town. That the UFC's larger, one-off events can sometimes be in the vicinity of baseball teams who perform less than mediocre that also play roughly half of their games in the exact same venue over the course of roughly six months in a period where the UFC is an a growth upswing should give all the "MMA is on par with traditional sports" talk some serious pause. Admittedly, that was not a point made by Sievert explicitly, but the attendance record information is misleading if you're trying to suggest there's parity.

Fightlinker has more, but the message is clear: all of the growth MMA has experienced and will continue to have is laudable. And there will be major events above and beyond the typical Saturday night fight that will inject the UFC into the larger sporting community's conversation. But MMA fans and pundits should not attempt to go head to head with other traditional mainstream sports when talking about how numbers stack up just yet. That's not a fight we can reliably win.

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