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Why UFC isn’t catching on with traditional sports fans

By Zach Arnold | July 30, 2013

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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.

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.

UFC fans are tuning out fighters like Demetrious Johnson

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.

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.

Topics: Boxing, Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 35 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

35 Responses to “Why UFC isn’t catching on with traditional sports fans”

  1. subo says:

    Thank Christ you’re not in charge of anything that has to do with mixed martial arts.

    “The UFC has failed to grow MMA in their own backyard, let alone the rest of the country.”

    I just, I can’t even. I can’t even!

    • Zach Arnold says:

      Look at their numbers in California and Nevada for gates from past years compared to recent numbers. Notice a trend? You wouldn’t but the rest of the public has.

      Even for the Anaheim show with Ronda Rousey, it was noted by Dave Meltzer that a last-minute ticket sale wave helped the arena fill up seats because the advanced gate numbers were not looking strong at all.

      • 45 Huddle says:

        The UFC has always given a big middle finger to the live fans. The viewing experience is probably the VERY WORST in professional sports. Think about it for a second. What major sport has a worse live viewing experience?

        1) Fans who have floor seats can’t see anything due to the angle.

        2) They have made no attempt to decrease the size of the bars in the octagon in order to give the live fans a better view.

        3) They still put the camera men right in the MIDDLE of the cage on 3 sides instead of behind a pole.

        And then they wonder why they can’t get people coming back for more. I’m a diehard fan so I like to go to an event every other year just for the live experience. But it is typically horrible.

        • Rob Maysey says:

          Viewing angle from the floor is true. It isn’t the best viewing experience at all. The best seats are about 12 rows up on in the middle.

      • subo says:

        How large is MMA today compared to 2002? It’s inconceivable statements like the one I quoted that make you easy to dismiss.

        I think it’s great that you miss PRIDE, but a) it’s dead, and b) having fighters come to the cage accompanied by Japanese dancers and painkiller syringes solves nothing.

  2. Jim says:

    Excellent article!

  3. Sampson Simpson says:

    The sport has attracted know nothing wrasslin fans who have graduated from scripted entertainment (WWE) to non-scripted, lack luster lay-and-pray affairs (UFC).

  4. Logical says:

    Articles like this only make me miss the PRIDE days even more…The production was absolutely amazing, it was an experience and not just an event.

    • 45 Huddle says:

      PRIDE was corrupt. They would change rules on the fighters mid-fight. They put on worked fights. They would not even invite fighters back if they thought they were boring.

      People like to remember PRIDE with rose colored glasses. PRIDE had so much baggage that they make the UFC look awesome by comparison.

      • Jonathan says:

        45 Huddle,

        I go back and watch PRIDE shows and they are awesome. Some UFC shows are awesome to watch, some are not. For that matter, some PRIDE fights were not awesome.

        But man, PRIDE was awesome. It was entertainment as much as it was a sport. Some fights were worked, and we did not care much for those fights, especially with Takada. But they told storylines that you just do not get in modern-day UFC, and perhaps that is what is missing. Sure you can hate on PRIDE and not like it, and obviously the UFC won that battle, but whether you agree with it or not, PRIDE was awesome AND entertaining. I don’t understand how PRIDE baggage makes the UFC look awesome. All it does is make me miss PRIDE and the awesome Sakuraba entrances!

        PRIDE Never Die!!!!


        • 45 Huddle says:

          Royler/Sakuraba having a rule that the ref couldn’t stop the fight. And then the ref stopped the fight.

          Mark Coleman doing a work against Takada.

          The ref blatantly allowing Kharitonov to grab the ropes over 10 times against Semmy Schilt as he was brutally grounding and pounding him.

          I mean the refs literally played favorites.

          And PRIDE would give fighters last minute fights in order for them to not be fully prepared.

          I know what you are saying about the beauty of PRIDE. But there was too much bad people just glossed over.

      • Zach Arnold says:

        I’m the last guy anyone on the planet would consider as a shill for PRIDE management.

        As far as production values go, name me a feature UFC/Fox has done that rivals what Fuji/PRIDE did for the Cro Cop/Fedor fight.

        • 45 Huddle says:

          For one, the UFC has never burnt a fighter with fireworks. PRIDE’s production did that.

          The Japanese shows were like 6 hours and went on forever. The UFC is quick and to the point. That part of their production is better then PRIDE and boxing combined.

        • Jay B. says:

          Nothing wrong with a nice little show and MMA party, Huddle. Worked crap, yeah Takada-Coleman fight sucked anyways. Nobody wanted to see that. Takada stopped fighting anyways because he knew he couldnt hang with the competition. Rule changes I had no issues with or the rules that fighters agreed upon based on their status in the fight game. IT made things more exciting.

  5. 45 Huddle says:

    1) Zach, you lose some credibility when you quote MMA Supremecy so often. The guy is a known Zuffa hater who spins everything against Zuffa and for the competition. I’m not saying your article doesn’t have merit, but you are completely using the wrong source to prove your point.

    2) Most year round sports fans I know don’t care about boxing either. They care about the following: NBA, NFL, MLB, College Basketball, & College Football. They don’t care about MLS, Tennis, NHL, and other smaller sports. Some might be into golf, but that depends on their income level. The UFC is just one of those niche sports like the rest of them. It most likely will never break out into the general rotation of the classic american sports fan.

    With that said, there are millions of New York Yankees “fans”. Heck, I can go into any office in the tri-state area and find some women who are NY Yankees fans. Then ask them a few basic questions on the current state of the team and you will get a response like: “I just love Derek Jeter.”

    3) What the UFC is getting paid by FOX per year compared to the amount of content they are providing…. FOX is still getting a good deal. They get a fraction of the content from The Big East or Pac-12 but are still paying big money per game.

    4) Weight Classes…. Weight Classes….. Weight Classes. The UFC went from 5 easily to follow weight classes in 2010… To now 9 impossible to follow weight classes by February 2013. 26 Months and they almost double the number of weight classes AND increased the number of fighters in each weight class during this time. not to mention the addition of a bunch of Strikeforce fighters most people didn’t really know of.

    At some point the UFC is going to be at 12 weight classes total, and it will be even more chaos. They turned themselves into boxing. What fans hated about boxing was all of the champions. Having 9 champions is too much.

    The UFC should only have 6 weight classes. Heavyweight to Featherweight.

    • Jonathan says:

      45 Huddle,

      What would those 12 weight classes be?

      Atomweight and Straw weight and what not?

      • 45 Huddle says:

        Men’s Strawweight and then 2 more female divisions. My guess would be 125 and 115.

        He has already mentioned a future 115 pound division for when they get more hispanic fighters and try to make it into the Mexican Market. And there were strong rumors of them scouting 115 pound female fighters too.

        Dana White is an ego maniac. But in his journey towards getting every single top fighter in any potential weight class, he is hurting the UFC long term. The ratings are showing this.

    • The Gaijin says:

      “1) Zach, you lose some credibility when you quote MMA Supremecy so often. The guy is a known Zuffa hater who spins everything against Zuffa and for the competition. I’m not saying your article doesn’t have merit, but you are completely using the wrong source to prove your point.”

      What from the quotes is spin, though? They’re hard, quantifiable numbers. You’re just attacking the speaker and his perceived biases, but nothing to contradict the veracity or truth of his statements.

      • cutch says:

        There is no spin, the UFC’s deal is to provide 100’s of hours worth of content over several channels, not just ratings for 4 Fox shows.

        EXC and Strikeforce were putting their top guys on those CBS shows, if the UFC were that desperate for ratings on those Fox shows they would have dropped some PPVs and put much bigger names than Mighty Mouse main eventing those cards.

        • The Gaijin says:

          The idea for the Fox shows was to provide quasi-PPV quality cards on free tv to gain broader exposure, drive viewers to purchase future ppvs and build new stars.

          I’m not comparing FX or Fuel ratings to CBS ratings – just Fox. And Strikeforce and EXC had different business models. They had no established PPV platform, so were trying to build-up first and then transition onto PPV. You’ll notice they rarely (until the end and the HWGP) put their biggest stars/fighters against the other big guys – they did more “showcase” fights and pulled in people with Kimbo and Gina.

          No one is saying anyone is desperate for anything, just that the Fox cards/exposure is NOT paying off in exponential growth like people claimed/predicted it would…and mmalogic came here to claim/predict again.

  6. Diaz's cashed bowl says:

    you make some good points in this article, bellator is doing some good things with their tournaments(which the ufc is missing the boat on) I’m interested in their upcoming PPV. Rampage vs Jones is a bit more interesting than couture vs Tooney.
    Funny I got blasted years ago for saying if the ufc wants to expand to an audience other than the dirt-bag crowd it would have to ditch the dirt-bag Dana.
    Also, that mighty mouse guy was lucky the Jake vs Rory was such a stinker. People were forced to watch his fight as they were desperate for some action!

    • Chuck says:

      I hate to sound like a dick, but this is the ONE great post I have seen from you. Seriously, you actually put out a well thought out, decently-enough written post. Why can’t you post like this more often man?

      • Diaz's cashed bowl says:

        I’m an underachiever.
        But seriously, Tito getting KTFO by Rampage? I’ll watch that. Tonight’s bellator was exceptional, Askren is superb. Fightmaster is actually watchable, unlike TUF.
        I have no interest in the potty mouth low life broads the UFC has injected into TUF. But then again I never watch TUF mainly due to the dirtbag factor.

  7. Zach Arnold says:

    One factor I forgot to point out:

    Of all US broadcast network television viewers who are not pay TV subscribers, one in five is Hispanic. In addition, Univision is cleaning the clock of English-speaking rivals in terms of ratings. Link here:

    In the future, I would be curious to see if Fox finds a way to try to get UFC programming onto their MundoFox network channel to try to make some inroads.

  8. Beau Dure says:

    I have to jump in on soccer here — I wouldn’t say NBC was the only player for EPL rights. And Fox is continuing its soccer investments even without the EPL — FS1 will have a daily one-hour soccer show.

    (Disclaimer: I’m currently writing about the NWSL for Fox Soccer. But I have no insider knowledge.)

    I think MMA is losing a lot of the casual fans who have suddenly realized that Kimbo Slice can’t come in and be great. The “everyman” ethos is gone. Now it’s an army of tactical wrestlers who are brilliant at the sport but not quite as easy to relate to.

    • Jay B. says:

      I actually believe thats just part of the cause. People are also put off by piss poor booking, Dana White’s soundbytes and list could go on. Of course, not everyone is going to come out looking invincible. Just like in any sport, you have a phenomenal era of fighting and it wanes and popular fades. Something comes along and brings it back up, rises like the phoenix.

  9. cutch says:

    We don’t know were TV will be in 5 years but there is every chance the UFC will start some subscription channel like they are doing in Latin America, perhaps in place of some PPVs

    They have a loyal young audience who are willing to pay for their content, the UFC would need a TV partner to help promote their product to casual fans and host said channel, for this and I would think they would be a lot of interest, especially as they would probably be sharing some of the profits.

  10. 45 Huddle says:

    Tito Ortiz vs. Quinton Jackson in Bellator….

    Bellator has officially gone the freakshow route….

    Ortiz is 1-7-1 in his last 9 fights. Quinton has lost 3 in a row and is 2-4 in his last 6… And a lot of people had him losing to Machida in one of those wins.

    This fight would have been great if it was on SpikeTV. It would have gotten a good rating. But puting it on PPV, it is going to fail really badly…

    And November 2nd is a horrible date…. A lot of people still have Halloween parties. It is not a stay in and order a PPV type of Saturday….

    • 45 Huddle says:

      I know Bellator’s telecast always feels choppy in terms of the flow of the show. But this one takes the cake…. From the moment King Mo’s fight was stopped…. To the moment Ben Askren’s fight started…. It was 29 minutes and 30 seconds.

  11. zack says:

    PRIDE Never Die

  12. Rob Maysey says:

    Also interesting for those curious–check the weight classes that were passed by the ABC years ago, and rejected vigorously by the UFC the very next day.

    Almost all of those weight classes, as I said, have now been adopted by the UFC.

    The difference? Notable competitors were acquired or driven out of business before the UFC’s adoption.

    • 45 Huddle says:

      That is not true. The UFC has stuck to the original 9 weight classes (minus Super Heavyweight) since the beginning. They didn’t have smaller weight classes then, but they were still okay with the idea.

      But when the ABC wanted to change it to 14 weight classes, they rejected the idea. And for good reason. The new weight classes in 2008 suggested by the ABC were:

      1. Super Heavyweight – Over 265
      2. Heavyweight – 265
      3. Light Heavyweight – 225
      4. Super Middleweight – 205
      5. Middleweight- 195
      6. Super Welterweight – 185
      7. Welterweight – 175
      8. Super Lightweight – 165
      9. Lightweight – 155
      10. Featherweight – 145
      11. Super Bantamweight – 135
      12. Bantamweight – 125
      13. Super Flyweight – 115
      14. Flyweights – 105

      That would have been an abomination and made the sport much much much worse. It would have turned MMA into boxing overnight. At no point has the UFC ever pushed to change the weight classes of the original classes. What they have done is gone down in size as they have moved forward.

  13. RST says:

    That was a well written article by Rios. I’ll have to check out more by him. I always knew that the UFC/MMA promotional image was obnoxious, thats obvious. But I never considered that it also verges on false advertising. As far as why trad sports fans aren’t feeling UFC/MMA, its probably that very same juvenile hipster image they push. Boxing tends to present itself as a respectable institution, wether it is or not.

    The booth guys wear tuxedo’s and stuff. Yeah there are boxers with flamboyant rasslin style shticks. But the sport presents itself as classy. I can imagine that a grown man (women dont watch sports) who considers himself a connoisseur would be embarrassed and even ridiculed to admit to or attempt to discuss MMA with another grown man.

    Because of the goofy, hipster rasslin image that zuffa pushes.

  14. Diaz's cashed bowl says:

    Come now Zach, that Ken Shamrock comment was way out of line.
    People praised Kabib the eagle for completely dominating his last opponent with wrestling to a decision, yet Askren is flamed again for dominating and actually finishing his last two opponents? There was more action in those 2 fights than the last 6 or so “big fights” like Dan vs Lyoto + Rashed, Gustafson vs Silva etc..

    Rampage vs Tito a fight between 2 ufc champions is some how a freakshow? yet having catch weight bouts with the wandering weight contenders and TRT abusers/ i mean users, Belfort and Sonnen isn’t?

    People seem to ignore that bellator has a 70-80% finish ratio per event, while UFC has a 30-50% finish ratio, not to mention 4 split decisions out of 6 decisions in the last ufc show also shows how crummy the judging is.
    Not to mention the contenders are so scared to lose most likely due to getting passed over for a title fight,they rarely fight for a finish like rory and Cain they could have finished Penn and santos but they just went for the decision. This is a bad strategy when fighting top fighters, and its boring for the fans.


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