I’m not sure exactly when it was that the marketing minds at the UFC seized on “fastest-growing sport” as the best, most effective and most honest-ish phrase to describe the rise of mixed martial arts.
It was definitely sometime in the past decade, probably sometime after the UFC got its first glimpses of profitability, but definitely before it decided that “The Ultimate Fighter” franchise was so great that every country on earth simply had to have its own (“TUF: Liechtenstein” should be dropping any day now …).
Point is, for what feels like a long time we’ve been hearing about the growth of MMA, but very little about the actual state of it. That’s why it was interesting to hear UFC President Dana White on Tuesday offer his take on what it would mean for the company and the sport to be “mainstream.”
“To me, mainstream is when you walk down the main street of any city anywhere and everybody knows what you are,” White told reporters on a media call.
White also told us that, regardless of what he may have said in the past about taking aim at soccer and pro football, the UFC still isn’t mainstream yet, although “I think we’re starting to get there now.”
The trouble is, recent numbers tell a different story. According to the estimates of MMA’s resident pay-per-view swami Dave Meltzer, the UFC has turned in some disappointing buy rates for recent events.
The current season of “TUF” is flagging in the ratings department despite the addition of female fighters and coaches who were supposed to give the long (and I do mean loooooong)-running series a fresh boost. The UFC’s most recent live event, an afternoon broadcast on FOX Sports 2 (basically FUEL TV, in that it only comes in standard definition and most non-fight fans couldn’t find it without Googling it first) drew just a shade over 100,000 viewers.
There are explanations and excuses and mitigating factors, if you want them. Baseball playoffs. Football season. Plus, as White pointed out on Tuesday’s call, this whole FOX Sports thing is still relatively new.
“The thing we’re dealing with now is switching networks again,” White said. “The third network, three times, you realize for any other thing that’s on TV, you switch networks that many times, it’s f—ing suicide. It’s guaranteed death, but we’ve been able to do it, we’ve been able to sustain it. We got into this business with FOX to build this network, FOX Sports 1, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
That all makes sense to me, as far as explanations go. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that a lot of that – the switching networks, the daytime event broadcasts smack in the middle of college football season, the stumbling corpse of the “TUF” franchise, the quantity-equals-quality approach to events – is the UFC’s own doing.
These aren’t natural disasters that no one could have foreseen. It’s not like a flood wiped out half the UFC roster. These are actions and consequences.
The question I keep coming back to, though, is just how much the average MMA fan should care about seeing the sport go fully mainstream. There’s a certain kind of fan who gets overly hung up on ratings or attendance figures, taking a pessimistic glee in doom-and-gloom predictions about the industry, but I suspect those people are in the minority. I suspect most of us care about those metrics mostly because we like this sport and don’t want to see it go away.
This isn’t the early 2000s anymore, when the UFC was so far from mainstream that just keeping up with the sport involved a scavenger hunt for VHS tapes and event results. This is 2013, when keeping up with the sport means leaving work early to catch a prelim between two guys you’ve never heard of in Brazil.
Not that too much free, easily accessible MMA is really a problem worth complaining about. At least not unless it dilutes the sport and makes it too difficult for would-be fans to jump in and get started, or dulls the interest of current fans who just can’t keep up anymore.
One thing the UFC sometimes seems to forget is that, despite what White says, success doesn’t just consist of making sure people walking down the street have all heard of you. Success is when they’ve heard of you and they like you.
For more on the UFC’s upcoming schedule, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.
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