UFC breaking American sports mold with cozy gambling relationship

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

It's unsurprising considering its roots, but The UFC stands apart in much of the American sports landscape as one of the few regularly televised US sporting events to have a very public relationship to gambling.

I'm sure a significant portion of our UK readership is scratching their heads a bit when I say that sports in the US don't have the coziest relationship to betting. While a large number of American fans still regularly gamble on sporting events, for the most part betting is still a fairly taboo thing. In much of the country bookmaking is outright illegal, and many other types of gambling are restricted to Indian reservations and casinos. As such, most sports on American television tend to keep odds at arm's length. A history of fixed matches, bent officials, and suspicious lines has made mass market ahtletics wary of drawing attention to the gambling element associated with their contest. Well, with one notable exception, the UFC. SportsBusinessDaily recently took a look at the sports betting scene in America and what they had to say about Zuffa's combat league was pretty intriguing.

However, one league that has run contrary to the theme of wariness is UFC. The Las Vegas-based organization has unabashedly embraced gaming sponsorships since Day 1 - perhaps because of its location as well as its ties to the Fertitta brothers, who started UFC and also run casino and online gambling businesses. Some of the most frequent gaming-related activation in the UFC involves the online poker site Ultimate Poker. The UFC will make its fighters available for Ultimate Poker events and promotions, and will allow ticket giveaways through the site to UFC bouts.

"I will simply state that we don't have any restrictions on our deals with gaming people," said Mike Mossholder, UFC senior vice president of global marketing partnerships. "The only thing that we have to watch is if a television partner in a certain market doesn't allow gaming. Since we're a global entity, we have to be aware of that. But we as a brand, we don't have any problem with the online gaming product and feel very confident in promoting it."

Mossholder said the league's long-held embrace of gaming solely comes down to the reality of its demographics.

"We're one of those brands that has a young, active fan base ... and anything that they enjoy, we're going to support," Mossholder said. "We've seen research for 10 years that shows our fan base is highly engaged in online poker."

There's little question that betting holds a different stigma in other, international markets. And, quite frankly, there's little doubt that fight fans like to gamble. Also there's the general combat sports relationship with gambling to be considered. Boxing isn't a "league" in the same way that the UFC is, but it makes regular use of betting odds in fight broadcasts and gambling sponsors for promotions and fighters. The UFC even holds events like its Hall of Fame poker tournament to celebrate the company's 20th anniversary.

All of which means that UFC is sort of stuck in a cultural gray area, on the one hand looking to deliver its content to a more public market, and on the other looking to maintain strong ties to its classic fanbase. Of course this has already come back to bite them at least once when they were forced to cancel their Full Tilt Poker deal amid a government crackdown on internet gambling, but as of yet the UFC has yet to be rocked by the sort of scandal that might make them cut public ties altogether.

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