Mixed martial arts is gaining in popularity and mainstream exposure. (Here’s my background post on why it’s relevant to this blog.) According to my shoddy browser-based research, Wrestling Observer put Pay Per View (PPV) buys at 775,000 for UFC 61 in mid-2006. The numbers for this past weekend’s Mayweather-De La Hoya boxing match were expected to be more than 1 million, so UFC still has a high-water mark to chase, but overall the consensus in the press is that boxing is in danger of being surpassed by MMA in economic clout in the very near future, if it hasn’t happened already.
[Update: Well Oscar and Floyd set the bar quite a bit higher: According to ESPN, more than 2 million PPV buys for $120 million in revenue. Both records for any weight class.]
MMA has a good bit of cable television time each week now and for the most part the old bit about calling MMA “human cockfighting” is only trotted out as a sad attempt at drawing Web traffic. (Here I could link to CBS Sportsline’s recent idiotic, staged exchange between Mike Freeman and Gregg Doyle, but I’d rather not give them any more clicks.) This is not to say that everybody loves the sport, or that nobody objects to it, but like it or not, MMA is fairly established now.
However. The UFC – MMA’s de facto governing body – is going to face some very interesting economic challenges in the coming year.
One is simply that ratings for “TUF” – The Ultimate Fighter show on Spike TV – are declining.
A second and bigger challenge has to do with how mainstream TV typically works vs. some realities of MMA.
Pro wrestling (which to me is much more offensive than actual fighting) has always relied on building storylines and recognizable characters. Now MMA certainly has its share of characters. Tito Ortiz, “the Huntington Beach Bad Boy” is a polarizing sort. Light heavyweight champion Chuck Lidell actually made it onto the HBO show Entourage recently and acquitted himself nicely, I thought. Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic, a Croatian former policeman and current member of Parliament (really!), says relatively little but has tree trunks for legs and is known for devastating high kicks. The saying about getting kicked by CroCop is “Right leg hospital, left leg cemetery.”
However, it’s very hard to win a lot of MMA fights in a row. Last year popular UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin was unseated by Anderson Silva. This year Georges St Pierre, an immensely likeable welterweight, lost his belt to Matt Serra, a fighter widely regarded before the fight as cannon fodder for St Pierre. And CroCop himself, whom the UFC was setting up for a run at the championship was knocked out – by a high kick – by little-known Brazilian Gabriel Gonzaga. Hardcore aficianados know the underdogs and understand the any-given-Sunday nature of the sport. But to maintain the interest of a broader mainstream audience, long-running charismatic (or anti-charismatic) champions and reasonably clear rankings of contenders may be necessary. MMA doesn’t generally lend itself to those things.
These challenges don’t look insurmountable but it will be interesting to see whether the UFC has to alter its practices in any way to continue to build the popularity of the sport.