Yesterday, June 19th marked the seventh anniversary of my friend’s wedding. I remember the day well: a beautiful ceremony in the Pacific Palisades on a hillside overlooking the ocean, presided over by the bride’s uncle, a sitting Ventura County judge, and closing with the couple reading to each other their own self-written vows. They were the definition of a couple with a bright future ahead of them: he was a network technical director easily making seven figures a year; she was an advertising copywriter and, unbeknownst to anyone, already pregnant with their first child. Yes, I remember the day well, for coincidentally that same day was one of the great MMA events of all time.
7 years ago that day, the Ultimate Fighting Championship held perhaps their most successful card of 2004, UFC 48. Headlined by a rematch from UFC 8 of Ken Shamrock vs Kimo Leopaldo, it would sell 110,000 pay-pay-views, a number only surpassed (at that time) under Zuffa’s reign two years earlier by Tito Ortiz’s and Ken Shamrock’s UFC 40. It would also have the third-highest gate of the year with 10,000 fans paying $900,000 for tickets (although little more than 6,000 actually paid for their seats). The event is best remembered as where Frank Mir snapped Tim Sylvia’s arm to win the UFC Heavyweight Belt in a fight that was oddly buried in the middle of the card - talk about lack of respect for your titles - but to Zuffa UFC 48 was noteworthy as being one of the only 3 or 4 cards that they had actually seen a profit on. Such was the position of MMA in North America at that point in time that this could be called with a straight-face a success.
But that was not the event.
A few hours after Ken had finished Kimo with his knees another MMA event on the other side of the world was just getting underway. This event was held just outside of Tokyo and inside the Saitama Superdome (announced crowd 43,000 although actually attendance was probably closer to 30,000) and was broadcast across the island nation on FUJI Television. While millions in Japan were able to watch Pride's Critical Countdown 2004 live (it garnered something like a 17% share of the viewing audience), I, who was attending a wedding, could not and thus missed two of the greatest finishes in the sport’s history: Rampage’s powerbomb of Arona and Fedor’s miraculous comeback after being Randleplexed.
Much has changed in the 7 years since they exchanged vows: they have given birth to two beautiful children; after 15 years of service he was downsized from his job and has remained, for the most part, unemployed since; their home has gone into foreclosure; and 8 months ago the two separated and are now going through a bitter divorce. 7 years ago it would have impossible to imagine such would be their fate, but that is where we are today.
For Pride and sougou kakutougi, the descent has been just as precipitous as my friends. A week doesn’t go by without a new story throwing more dirt onto the grave of Japanese MMA. The most recent detailed the failing of its (formerly) premiere promotion to pay their fighters. Hard to believe that if one was to travel through Japan in the summer of 2004 you couldn’t throw a rock and not hit someone who was a fan of this thing called Pride fighting. Huge TV ratings and massive crowds attested to the fact that the center of the MMA universe was Tokyo and not Las Vegas. Now, even when they manage to hold an event, it is before crowds a fraction of their previous sizes, with no presence on television, and a great chance that the fighters who take part paychecks bounce.
Fortunately for us living in the UFC hemisphere of the world, we have not been bedeviled by such ailments. Here the sport has never been more popular, has never been more mainstream, and has never been more profitable – at least for the one major promotion.
Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta are fond of claiming that the UFC is the sport of the future and will one day be the biggest sport’s league in the world, surpassing the behemoths named football being played on both sides of the pond. And while many will scoff at this notion a recent article by Bill King in the Sports Business Journal shows that there is much for the UFC and its owners, Zuffa, to crow about. According to King:
[Zuffa] eclipsed $400 million in revenue last year. A sport that was an outlier when [Fertitta] bought it is now regulated in 45 states, with a global footprint that includes Europe, Asia, South America and Australia. It is proving it can land blue-chip sponsors that will help expose it to the masses.
It is sometimes hard to fathom the turnaround the UFC has seen in their fortunes. In 2004 they held only five events all year, with all but one of them being in Las Vegas, selling a little more than 400,000 pay-per-views and were probably looking at less than $20 million in total revenue that year. Now compare that to the record 9 million plus pay-per-views sold in 2010, their recent Toronto card, which smashed all North American attendance and gate figures, or that over the course of 2011 they will be holding at least 22 events in 11 different states and four different countries. And when one examines the demographics of their fanbase the future looks even brighter than the present.
Based on surveys taken January through April, the polling firm Luker on Trends, which conducts the ESPN Sports Poll, estimates that about 30 million Americans age 12 and older are avid UFC fans, with 42 percent of those falling in the 12-34 bracket. About one-third of males 18-24 and one-fifth of those 25-34 said they were avid MMA fans.
In the four years that the Sports Poll counted MMA fans, the avid segment — the one that matters most to sponsors and TV networks — grew steadily from 12.7 percent of respondents to 13.9 percent, even as the avid base for many sports has remained flat or declined. Last year, the avid fan base of MMA in the U.S. trailed only pro and college football, pro and college basketball and Major League Baseball. And that’s from the larger fan pool, not just under-34 males.
It is statistics such as those that has Zuffa and sponsors salivating. To witness a prime example of their appeal one needs only to look at their Facebook page which has grown to have 5.5 million fans, second only to Facebook king the NBA, which has 8.6 million fans, and ahead of the NFL (3.1 million), the NHL (1.6 million), and MLB (a measly 400,000). The numbers do not lie, the UFC possesses as strong a fanbase amongst young males as those four.
But before we start celebrating the coming 1,000-year Pax UFC, we should note in that same article the comments of one Rich Luker, the man who founded what would become the ESPN Sports Poll.
Luker acknowledges that which is impossible to ignore: that UFC holds a prominent place among young males. But he remains skeptical about its staying power, questioning its ability to hold on to the fans it has added outside of its core.
"The curiosity factor draws a lot of people in," Luker said. "We’re in that window right now with UFC. It reminds me of poker and professional bull riding. There was a window where curiosity drove people’s interest. But you just don’t hear about poker being hot any more.
"We predict this will not be a long run."
Luker points to a red flag that he says the UFC shares with bull riding, poker and even NASCAR, which has seen casual fans drift away in recent years. An inordinate share of those who express a strong interest in MMA are not avid sports fans, Luker said.
"The pedigree of engagement in sports is not near what you find in the traditional sports that we track," he said. "So they’re not going to have the same sort of stable duration of fan base.
"If UFC can take what they have and keep it pure … it is the kind of thing that some people will seek out. But this is not a mainstream sport. And it won’t be.
Is there any truth to what he says, that the UFC and MMA are nothing more than fads? That it will never be a mainstream sport, the stated goal of Dana White? While a casual examination of the numbers above would seem to contradict Luker's claim, further examination finds that there may be something to it. First off, for all its success, it is still very much a niche sport. Even with over $400 million in revenue it is dwarfed by what the NFL ($8 billion), MLB ($7 billion), NBA ($4.2 billion) and even the NHL ($2.7 billion) generated in 2010.
Furthermore, while pay-per-view sales have indeed skyrocket, another indicator hasn't seen the same increase. As Jonathan Snowden recently observed, while sports in general have seen a huge growth in their television ratings the UFC has not. The reasons are many, but one may be that Luker is correct in his analysis that most UFC fans are not avid sports fans. Indeed, it is well known in the MMA community, that a large portion of the fanbase was carved out from that of the WWE's fan base, a fake sport which appeals to those with less interest in other sports. In any case, the success of their pay-per-views over their free offerings seems to suggest that for a large number of fans watching the UFC is a social activity much more than it is for fans of other sports. A hardcore base that is willing to pay much more than other sports fans for their preferred form of entertainment may be the recipe for profits, but would not seem to be the recipe for wider appeal. Let former HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg explaine the impact pay-per-view has on sport (boxing):
"I can't tell you that pay-per-view helps the sport because it doesn't. It hurts the sport because it narrows our audience, but it's a fact of life."
The touted demographics themselves also argue against some sort of future mainstream success. According to Diana Illiano, publicist for Scarborough Sports Marketing, a company that is studying the sport's fans and their purchasing habits, only 20% of the UFC’s fanbase is female. In comparison, amongst the big four major leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) the next lowest is the NBA with 36.4 % of their fans being female. Can a sport become mainstream by appealing so little to half the population? I would argue it would be difficult. If one examines the major fan-types and their reasons for being passionate for certain sports, two of them seem to preclude the UFC from attaining that status: Field of Dreamers (nostalgia) and Team Obsessors. Having been in existence for less than two decades there is not a lot history for MMA to appeal to the former, while the latter is not applicable. The third group, Family Connectors, is threatened by an image of the sport being racist, homophobic, and sexist. Recent comments by prominent figures in the UFC don't help to change this image.
That the fans themselves can be seen as a hindrance would not come as a surprise to the owners of Zuffa who have recruited Bryan Johnson, former vice president of marketing at Burton Snowboards, to help clean up an aspect of the business that they had neglected — the lifestyle element — which had in many ways come to define the image many had of the UFC.
"If you weren’t wearing a gold foiled T-shirt with talons and blood, you weren’t UFC," Johnston said. "Lorenzo and Dana saw what it was becoming and they were ready to puke."
But can they really risk alienating such a solidly loyal group? If their eventual goal is to truly go mainstream and become the biggest sport in the world, or even a moderately mainstream sport, then the answer has to be yes. And with rumors of a Zuffa possibly purchasing a share of the G4 network and/or entering a broadcast deal with Comcast which, according to Bill King, has
several assets that UFC sees as valuable to its growth: a large mothership network in NBC; various niche channels on which to promote its lifestyle elements; Comcast SportsNet, to promote to mainstream sports fans in key markets such as Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago; and a large stake in the cable business, which would give it a greater motivation to forward UFC’s core business, pay-per-view.
then perhaps they are really taking the plunge towards mass appeal. If they are truly doing so I applaud their actions but I would still question the wisdom of it.
Over the next few years Zuffa will have to face a dilemma: do they try and preserve what they have and risk it all disappearing, or at least seeing it greatly diminished, if it turns out to have been nothing more than a fad? Or do they try and actually push the sport into the mainstream, a mainstream that may not really have any interest in watching men fight in a cage, and thus risk losing the core fanbase that has propelled them to where they are? The answer isn't easy, for every Mongol Horde to hold up as an example of success, there is a Helvetian disaster to hold up as warning; for every Masada there is a Maginot Line.
And perhaps the UFC will not have to make a choice and their own success will prove their downfall - troubles in New York have resulted in discussions of applying the Mohammed Ali Boxing Reform Act to mixed martial arts (which I see actually being a universal good), the purchase of Strikeforce has brought out charges of monopoly and a rumored FTC investigation with unforeseeable consequences for Zuffa. These and a myriad of other challenges face a sport and a promotion that has only found success in the last 7 years.
And if I ever need a reminder of how much can change in only a few years I can go to my friend's Myspace and revisit his wedding photos.