One of Dana White’s favorite lines is that the UFC has only just scratched the surface of how big the sport of MMA can become. But is that really true?
For MMA to reach the level White seems so confident that it can, it needs to be accepted into the mainstream. The FOX deal is supposed to take care of that, but the fledgling deal is so young that it’s impossible to judge whether or not it will actually happen.
If the UFC truly wants to go mainstream, they need to get away from the current pay-per-view (PPV) model. Many people simply aren’t willing to fork over $50 for something they get on FOX, FX, and FUEL for free.
We refer to them as casual fans.
Casual fans do not care which particular fight is on because they don’t have a personal stake in the sport or its athletes. They may know that Anderson Silva is a champion, but they have no clue in what division. Basically, they have no emotional attachment to the sport. They watch when they have a few hours to kill and happen onto some fights.
Part of the problem with drawing in new fans is that this isn’t a laid-back sport like baseball with a picnic-type atmosphere.
It takes but a split second for a knee to find a nose and the Octagon to resemble a crime scene. That’s not for everyone. It may seem strange to MMA fans, but many people will just never view kneeing someone in the face as sport. To them, it’s just violence.
Even taking into account the people who will likely never accept MMA, there is still plenty of room to grow.
Indeed MMA has grown, particularly the UFC—from a rinky-dink, no-holds-barred spectacle to a powerhouse company Forbes valued at $1 billion back in 2008.
God knows what it's worth now. And it will continue to grow. That is not in dispute. The question of whether or not it is ever accepted into the mainstream is a different question—one wholly up to the UFC. There are moves they can make to ensure their product reaches the masses, then it’s up to basic market forces.
The UFC cannot assume people will become regular PPV buyers just because they caught a fight on FOX and liked it.
They may buy one event here and there but cannot justify the cost on a regular basis. Many people like hamburgers yet have little interest in a $40 Kobe beef burger beyond maybe a one-time gluttonous adventure. Why? It’s excessive, and while it may very well be heaven on a bun, the cost is the deciding factor.
The UFC has saturated the PPV market with 16 events in 2011 alone, and another 15 or so are planned for this year.
They've done a wonderful job of adding plenty of free fights as well, but that's still a lot of coin to ask people to put out. And PPV numbers have stabilized over the past couple of years, after five years of astronomical growth.
The Brock Lesnar wave that sent PPV sales into the stratosphere was an anomaly that may never come along again. The UFC cannot afford to hedge their bets on another Brock Lesnar.
There is massive growth potential in untapped overseas markets for just that reason—they’re untapped; the sport has nowhere to go but up.
But in America, the UFC is nothing new. Even people who don’t like it have at least heard of it. To reach mainstream status here in America, the UFC needs to be on free television consistently, and it needs to offer the highest-quality events.
Jim Miller vs. Nate Diaz was a great main event to the hardcore fans, but the casual fans want GSP and Jon Jones before they'll fork over the dough for a PPV.
Contractual obstacles arise in that UFC champions—and some others with drawing power—are given percentages of the PPV total. It’s a percentage breakdown based on sales, which could net millions for a big PPV draw like GSP.
No manager in their right mind is going to let their PPV star fight on free television for base salary unless assurances are made that the lost PPV income will be made up by the UFC.
The UFC will be reluctant to supplement that lost income for obvious reasons—putting fights on FOX doesn’t make as much money as putting fights on PPV...yet.
It could one day get to that point, but it’s a long way off. The UFC would need to start pulling in some downright killer ratings on a steady basis.
So is this the best we can hope for? No, it can and will get better.
But it’s going to take time, and a willingness on the part of the UFC brass to accept that it is, in fact, all about the Benjamins.