By Zach Arnold | July 30, 2013
Because the North American audience that largely watches UFC isn’t representative of the typical sports fan. Most fans of the UFC watch maybe one other sport, at most. Furthermore, many of the fans that make up UFC’s audience come from professional wrestling. It’s an audience built from entertainment more than sports.
— MMA Supremacy (@MMASupremacy) July 30, 2013
It’s why Fox Sports is having trouble seeing growth with their investment in UFC as a television property. MMA is quickly becoming a fixed ratings proposition. You can’t grow the television property without appealing to fans from other sports. Unlike the occasional big boxing fight, UFC has been unable to appeal to fans from contact sports like the NFL. The assumption on all sides was that the UFC would appeal to fans from sports that are heavy on action and physicality. So far, the gamble is failing.
The UFC prizes fighters who both look and live up to their skewed idea of what MMA fighters should be — bricked-up automatons programmed to recreate key scenes from 300. Watch any UFC commercial and you’ll have a hard time sorting out if you’re being sold a sport or the fever dreams of a violent shaman.
For all of Johnson’s dominance, it was most certainly not a performance befitting the UFC’s aggro ultra-violence marketing aesthetic. Johnson’s style is rooted in timing, angles and strategy — the exact same principles most any athlete relies on to establish primacy. However, Johnson’s brand of fighting is not the one the UFC sells to the public. The result is that fans largely tune out fighters of Johnson’s ilk, presumably for failing to escape, face the pain, and “step to this” in the correct order. Were Johnson an isolated example, he’d be a problem the UFC could live with. However, he’s quickly becoming the norm.
@MMASupremacy Remember when Meltzer called UFC on Fox 3, "a genuine XFL caliber ratings disaster" That was a 1.6 Rating
— Richard Kuklinski (@PainDeathTaxes) July 30, 2013
— MMA Supremacy (@MMASupremacy) July 30, 2013
There is always going to be value in MMA as a television property and on an independent scale. However, you can pretty much slot MMA in the combat sports scale as following: above pro-wrestling in value but below boxing.
Two of the biggest flaws for MMA”s limited appeal: 1) “it’s a West Coast sport” and 2) “it’s largely a white man’s game.” In the case of point one, many of the power players in boxing are located on the West Coast. However, boxing historically has deep roots on the East Coast and many of the television executives who make big decisions on which fights to invest in are located back East. With the UFC, everything is largely centralized in Los Angeles or Las Vegas.
As for point two, some in-roads have been made into minority communities for MMA… but not enough. And this is one of the hidden issues that few discuss when it comes to talking about MMA legislation in New York state. Sure, there’s plenty of underground MMA happening (ask Jim Genia, he wrote the book on the topic), but UFC not being able to run shows regularly in the New York market is having a direct impact on not only their ability to expand their fan base with minorities but also with television executives.
Since I spend a lot of energy focusing on California, let’s take a look at the current marketplace situation. Despite most of the major players in MMA being based in California or Nevada, boxing continues to dominate the landscape in terms of fan appeal. Boxing is the key revenue driver in California. It’s why Andy Foster as CSAC Executive Officer is such a fascinating choice for Sacramento. He’s an MMA guy. MMA is what he knows. He doesn’t know boxing. It doesn’t mean that he hates boxing and it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want the big boxing fights to happen. However, many people in the boxing community can see what Andy’s background is and what his preferences are. Boxing is the major leg of the combat sports stool in California. California is a state where the white population is quickly becoming the minority population. The UFC has failed to grow MMA in their own backyard, let alone the rest of the country. They’re hoping that they can make significant headway in China. Most of Europe is a lost cause for them right now.
In regards to why MMA is not growing under the Zuffa banner, it’s pretty self-explanatory. If you pitch a product in a certain, predictable manner, you will always limit your scope and fail to expand the base. A lot of the production values being used by the UFC today were the same ones they were using 10 years ago. This same problem is infecting the WWE. Every year, we hear all about new forms of technology being implemented for NFL, NBA, and even MLB broadcasts. We never see this kind of shift in UFC’s television production department. Yes, a fight is a fight and there’s only so much you can do. However, the viewing experience is still the same. Dana White hates PRIDE-style ring entrances. He didn’t like a lot of what Fuji TV, the best television network in the world for production values, did with PRIDE. There was a reason Fuji TV was able to attact 20 million viewers for PRIDE telecasts — because they knew how to grow the sport, how to produce a product light years ahead of other television properties, and knew what Grandma and Grandpa wanted to see. Fuji TV knew how to expand their audience scope. The UFC does not. When Fuji TV got out of the MMA space and anti-yakuza banking laws were implemented, Japanese MMA on a national level died in the country. The importance of Fuji TV in the history of global MMA growth cannot be understated. Their absence in the current MMA scene has significantly hurt the sport.
The relationship between Fuji TV & PRIDE was significantly different than the relationship between UFC & Fox Sports. Kunio Kiyohara, the Fuji TV producer who was disgraced in the yakuza scandal, had enormous influence on the direction of PRIDE. Conversely, the UFC has maintained a lot of editorial control with the Fox broadcasts. If UFC had signed a deal with HBO, that editorial control would have been acquiesced much like PRIDE did with Fuji TV.
Fox Sports invested a heavy amount of cash into their soccer television properties. They even created a channel, Fox Soccer. However, soccer television ratings plateaued for them & ESPN. When it came time for a bidding war over the rights to broadcast English Premier League games, NBC was the only serious player. Perhaps with the rise of USA Soccer, ratings will increase. However, Fox saw that the price of doing business to keep soccer around was too rich for their blood. Fox is in bed with the UFC for many years to come. If ratings growth does not happen for the UFC on television, they will quickly discover that beggars can’t be choosers and that Fox will pull the rip cord out of their business relationship if it doesn’t make financial sense.