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UFC: The Current State of Mixed Martial Arts and Its Premier Organisation

NEW YORK - MARCH 06:   UFC president Dana White signs autographs for fans after a press conference at Radio City Music Hall on March 06, 2012 in New York City.  UFC announced that their third event on the FOX network will take place on Saturday, May 5 from the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, N.J.. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images)
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James MacDonaldFeatured ColumnistOctober 8, 2012

Dana White has made no secret of his desire to expand the sport of mixed martial arts until it surpasses soccer as the world’s most popular sport, but how realistic is this vision?

Luke Thomas recently made the point during one of his weekly chats—always worth checking out, by the way—that MMA is “cooling off” and is no longer doing the kind of business it did from 2008-2010.

He didn’t elaborate on this point with any great detail, so I will answer this argument as I understand it—at the risk of perhaps mischaracterizing his views.

There is no doubt that the UFC no longer pulls the kind of numbers it did in 2009. One look at MMAPayout.com confirms that point. However, one could argue that several other factors have played into this downward trend.

The first thing to note is that it is difficult to quantify the sport’s popularity simply based on PPV buys. I’m sure some might also point to The Ultimate Fighter’s dwindling ratings, but that is more likely the product of an antiquated show format and a horrendous time slot.

The reason why one cannot look at PPV numbers in isolation is that the sport has changed immeasurably over the past year, largely because of the Fox deal. By comparing 2009 to 2012, you are essentially stacking the deck.

The sheer number of events alone would be sufficient to drag down the UFC’s bottom line. Indeed, Joe Silva could book GSP, Brock Lesnar, Chael Sonnen, Rashad Evans and Anderson Silva on the same card and it still wouldn’t clear the lofty bar set by UFC 100.

Dana White and his chums are offering so much more content in 2012 that it was bound to have a deleterious effect on card depth. The expansion of the UFC roster has not been commensurate with demand.

The result of this is that so-called “name” fighters are spread around more to compensate for the UFC’s packed calendar, which has in some ways realised Dana White’s greatest fear: promotional parity with boxing. We now have cards that are so top-heavy they make Playboy Playmates look proportional.

Injuries and the subsequent withdrawals have only served to exacerbate the problem. Cards that initially boasted something approaching depth have been poached in order to paper over the cracks left by the UFC’s ailing army of employees.

Of course, this doesn’t prove that the sport is as strong as ever. Rather, it simply offers an alternative explanation for its diminishing returns.

MMA hasn’t grown in popularity over the past couple of years—certainly not noticeably—but it has very likely maintained its fanbase. In other words, the UFC’s current issues and limitations have kept the sport in promotional stasis—make no mistake, the sport’s future is inextricably tied to the fortune of the UFC.

The bad news is that the sport may be forced to endure a few more years of its somewhat painful quiescence; the good news is that those kids who were inspired to take up the sport by the mixed martial arts boom of the late noughties will soon mature and once again boost its growth.

Until that time comes, we must tolerate the dilution of the UFC’s product and maintain optimism for the future.

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