Ten years ago this week, MMATorch senior columnist Shawn Ennis asserted that MMA could become as big as American’s top team sports leagues, but a few things stood in the way. Since this column was written, a lot has happened, including the consolidation of MMA into two major leagues in the United States with major cable and one broadcast network affiliates, with top MMA fighters crossing over into mainstream celebrities. How would you grade MMA’s progress, and what did Ennis forecast correctly and where did MMA’s leaders come up short on progress?
-Wade Keller, editor
What is the current state of mixed martial arts? If you’re a fan of MMA, you go to the websites, you see new ones popping up constantly, and everyone talks about how the sport is booming. Becoming “mainstream.” But what does that even mean? With the current number of media outlets, what isn’t mainstream? You may watch MMA religiously, or you may check out each fight card before deciding whether you’re going to buy it. You may only watch the free events, and then keep up on the pay-per-views via the Internet. But regardless of how you get your personal fill, you know what mixed martial arts is. You know that “UFC” is a brand name and not a sport. But if you walk up to someone on the street, what are the chances that they know this? Where is MMA in the public eye, and where does the sport go from here?
It’s true that this is a huge period in the relatively short history of mixed martial arts as we know it. Never has there been so much exposure to the once-shunned and misunderstood competition. Of course there’s UFC and Pride, but now you’ve got the IFL on Fox Sports, you’ve got Showtime picking up the rights to show MMA, WEC is on HDNet, and BodogFight is on… well, it showed on some network, anyway. (Bodog is a subject for another day.) But I think there’s potential for so much more.
Mixed martial arts easily has the potential to become as big, nearly as big, as the major team sports in America. Who’s to say that boxing wouldn’t still be popular were it not for all the corruption and the inability to put on consistently compelling matches? But there are steps to be taken in order to get to that particular level, and I don’t think all the promotions are going in the right direction.
The fact is, if you want to see MMA, you’ve still got to look for it. That’s not the case if you want to see baseball during baseball season or football during football season. Of course, that’s kind of an apples and oranges comparison, but bear with me here. If you want to watch football games, you know to go to the TV on Sunday afternoon and flip through the channels, and eventually you’ll find a game. Baseball and basketball are on nightly during their respective seasons.
But what about MMA? You’ve pretty much got to frequent Fox Sports Net or Spike TV to know when a free event is coming up (I’m talking about the casual fan who doesn’t necessarily scour the Internet for news here.) To me, the next logical step is to put MMA in front of everyone. And you do that through network TV, and through touring.
Remember the Wide World of Sports on ABC? I have vague memories of “The Thrill of Victory” and “The Agony of Defeat” (I’ll never forget that skier in the opening montage), but the show was mostly before my time. Still, I know it was on Saturday afternoons, and on any given Saturday you could tune in and get your general sports fix, whether it was boxing, cycling, skiing, or what have you. I think that kind of approach would be extremely beneficial for a mixed martial arts promotion.
Sure, the competition would be stiff during college football and basketball seasons on Saturdays, but they could also use Sunday afternoons during football’s offseason. Mostly, the networks are airing fluff that’s not meant to draw a rating in the middle of the afternoon on a weekend. So what would they have to lose by airing a new sports product? Not every market has a team that everyone watches, or that’s competitive enough to hold everyone’s interest. It’s these people, the sports fans who don’t necessarily have anything to give them a good sports fix, which MMA could capture immediately.
Take me, for example. I live in Indiana, but I grew up in Delaware as a die-hard Philadelphia pro sports fan. I have no interest in watching any of the local college teams on TV (and never was much of a college sports fan to begin with, actually.) So on a Saturday afternoon, what better to have available than some good action that I know I can count on? And I know I’m not the only one who looks for sports and can’t find anything to really hold my interest. And with a weekly network show, you could kill two birds with one stone by introducing fighters before showing the fights. Give some profiles on the participants of the two or three fights that you’re showing. Make it a combination of Inside the UFC and UFC Unleashed. Something where we get to know the fighters, and then see what they can do. And in the meantime, we find out about the sport and the promotion in general.
Unfortunately, it looks as if some MMA promotions are going in the opposite direction. One of the things that has killed boxing is that no one knows any of the fighters. This is obviously in large part due to a general dwindling interest in the sport, but there’s something to be said about how boxing was essentially taken away from free TV. If you even want to see kind of well-known names, you’ve got to have HBO or Showtime. And the vast majority of people don’t. Sure, promoters can make money with exclusive contracts, but in the end, the fans lose out. So why has the UFC been negotiating with HBO? Maybe it’s just me, but I see little advantage in having a contract with a premium channel rather than with a network. With HBO, you’d actually be bringing the sport into fewer homes, and I’m not sure how that’s a good thing.
So being accessible on television is the first part of the equation, but the second may even be more important. Most people who watch sports on TV have either been to a live event of what they watch most often, or they want to go to one, but haven’t had the opportunity for whatever reason. How many of the half a million (I’m approximating, obviously) people to order a given UFC pay per view even have a promotion of any kind that’s been to their area? Not many. And even if a televised event were to come to town, how many people could afford the exorbitant price of a ticket?
That’s the problem with live events in mixed martial arts. As much as the promoters love to talk about the live gate, how much of that money comes from regular people who would love to get in and see an event? How many times have you seen the people in the first five rows get really excited and into the action at a UFC pay per view event? Is it more or less times than you’ve seen people talking on their cell phones saying, “Am I on camera?! Check me out!!”
I’m not saying by any means that those in attendance don’t enjoy the events. But do they appreciate it? The two main promoters of mixed martial arts have been to a whopping two states (Nevada and California) combined during the recent boom period of the sport. It seems to me that you could get a more enthusiastic crowd in a place that doesn’t always have this kind of event available. I should say that I’ve heard UFC 68 is scheduled to take place in Columbus, OH, and I know Dana White has talked extensively about touring globally. But I really think that lowering ticket prices is going to be a big part of how that all plays out. There’s hardly an argument that a hot live crowd has a large impact on how an event plays on television. Just look at the inaugural BodogFight event every time Bif Naked got face time.
Another advantage of touring is that when you bring the show to the people, it’s more memorable. I’m going to remember a knockout punch a lot more vividly having seen it live than I am having seen it on TV. This can be said for any sport. I already said I’m not a huge college sports fan, but I’ll never forget the memories of having season tickets to BYU football when I attended there. There was the game we played against Hawaii when it snowed like crazy out of season, there was the shovel pass to Luke Staley and his run down the sideline into my end zone that sealed the game against Utah…and this is four and five years ago, for a team toward whom I’m mostly just lukewarm. There are countless men who remember going to the baseball game with Dad as a kid. Why can’t this be the case with mixed martial arts? My son is two years old right now, and one day maybe he’ll be able to say that his dad took him to see the next great champion on his way to the top. I’d sure like that.
NOW CHECK OUT PREVIOUS 10 YEARS AGO FLASHBACKS HERE.