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Fan data shows bright future for the UFC, combat sports

UFC numbers are down across the board in 2012, but new numbers from key demographics suggest the interest in the UFC (and MMA in general) is rising, the gap between MMA and boxing is closing.

Kevin C. Cox - Getty Images

A lot has been made recently about the "numbers" and ratings for both boxing and MMA (primarily the UFC). The ratings for the UFC are at an all-time low from the standpoint of The Ultimate Fighter, Fight Night, PPV buys, and the FOX ratings have fallen off a cliff. Meanwhile, boxing is coming off a wildly successful set of fights with 475,000 buys for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. against Sergio Martinez along with record Showtime boxing viewing numbers for Canelo Alvarez vs. Josesito Lopez. If you go by the last few months you'd believe boxing was on the up-and-up and the UFC was headed for a tailspin. Researcher and Sports Business Journal writer Rich Luker has pinpointed some key statistics that suggest there's a significant interest in some form of combat sport (including pro wrestling) and that MMA could be the premier combat sport in the future.

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Just under half (48 percent) of Americans ages 12 and older are fans of fighting sports, the eighth-largest amount among the 32 sports now tracked. Sixteen percent of Americans have an avid interest in one or more of the three forms of fighting, placing fighting seventh in avid fan base size when compared to the other sports. Seventy-five percent of fighting fans follow two or three types of fighting. And while there is sharper focus at the avid-fan level, 58 percent of fighting fans have avid interest in two or three fighting forms.

But there are several factors that point to MMA as the fighting sport of the future. MMA has the 13th-largest general fan base and eighth-largest avid fan base, which is remarkable at a time when it is hard for any new sport to emerge. MMA’s emergence can be seen in the differences in interest by age, as well (see chart).

The chart really does hit home the fact that the 12-17 and 18-34 male demographic is the bulk of the fanbase. Of 5,146 surveyed, 65.6% in the 12-17 age bracket and 67.4% in 18-34 considered themselves MMA fans. In fact, the 67.4% edged out boxing in the same category. MMA also holds the edge as far as self-described "avid" fans until the 35+ market for both male and female. Pro wrestling's fanbase has dropped considerably in the past 10 years except for 55+ males and females.

As far as boxing, which has also seen an increase in fans over the last 10 years, Dave Meltzer in the latest Wrestling Observer states (subscription required) that this is primarily down to the Hispanic market.

A big key is the emergence in numbers of the Hispanic audience, where boxing is the second biggest sport next to soccer. Those numbers have increased over the past decade from 37.4 million to 50.7 million, and will continue to increase over the next decade. What makes that strange is that pro wrestling is twice as popular with the Hispanic audience in the U.S. than the white audience, so whatever growth boxing should have because of it should be mirrored by wrestling. It’s hard to say why that isn’t the case. Boxing hasn’t had that superstar Hispanic since Oscar De La Hoya, and wrestling really hasn’t had one in decades. Eddy Guerrero was close before his death and was the biggest since the heyday of Mil Mascaras (who was a superstar only regionally in the U.S.), but to really draw from that type of audience, the guy has to be No. 1, not No. 5 when it comes to being pushed as the serious top star of the brand.

The encouraging ratings and PPV buys for the September boxing cards mentioned in my opening paragraph seem to suggest what Meltzer is saying. If you watched Martinez/Chavez Jr. the atmosphere was electric even at the weigh-ins and the whole event really made for a fascinating spectacle.

One of the largest contributors to the interest in both sports is the female demographic:

Another key factor, possibly the key factor, in a freshening fighting audience is the growth in avid interest by women. From 2002 to 2012, interest in boxing is up for women of all ages. And avid interest in MMA is stronger for women 12-54 than for men 55 and older. Clearly the presence of women boxers and MMA fighters is leading this interest. These numbers (see chart) are substantial and, if sustained, demand a closer look at the overall sports landscape from a woman’s perspective.

Female interest in boxing has increased substantially in all age demographics from 2002 to 2012, doubling from 8.5% to 15.7% in the 55+ group. The 52% MMA fans from 12-17 years old is higher than both boxing and pro wrestling. Dana White has made it clear in the past that women make up a sizable portion of the UFC's fanbase, and the numbers seem to back it up.

Luker also makes a very good point regarding the UFC's need to build stars and familiarize their top fighters to sustain a fanbase.

The key to UFC avoiding the post-curiosity decline is continuing to develop the path and progression of the fighters in the sport. The more fans know who they are and how they got there, the more likely they are to form a bond with one or more fighters, and that is the key to building a sustained fan base.

This is something the UFC has been lacking with their monotonous way of promoting fighters. It's something that they have been completely unable to grasp beyond TUF, and it may be a major factor in their lack of stars. If they dumped the "if I could pick a guy to beat Anderson Silva, it's Thales Leites" drivel and substituted it with their "Road to the Octagon" special for Velasquez vs. Dos Santos -- and not shove it on FUEL TV -- it will do wonders for their marketing.

There is a lot to comprehend and interpret here, and I left even more data out before your head (or even worse, my head) exploded. But you can definitely gather some of the following:

- Boxing isn't dead, dying, or on life support. Not even close, and yes, it can co-exist with MMA. It's not going anywhere any time soon and as Canelo Alvarez has a high potential of being Mexico's "next big thing" and a major draw in the US.

- The UFC's low ratings are not necessarily tied to a lack of interest in the organization or MMA itself. Millions of people are interested in Major League Baseball, but that doesn't mean that they would watch Orioles vs. Reds on the same level as Yankees vs. Red Sox. As to how they pick themselves back up from this recent "slump" is another debate altogether.

- Youth and women lead the way. The percentage of "avid" boxing fans in the 18-34 male demographic increased from 23.8% to 27.9%. In addition, the same demographic makes up the majority of MMA/UFC fans. One can assume that the decline in pro wrestling interest is directly correlated to the increase for MMA and boxing in the 12-34 male and female range.

The sky isn't falling yet, folks. There's plenty to be excited about.