Niche: a place or position suitable or appropriate for a person or thing.
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal interviewed UFC czars Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White. They discussed, as they often do in these kinds of interviews, the surprising and meteoric rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship over the course of the last 10 years.
The interview really wouldn't be all that notable, but one thing White did say regarding the UFC's popularity on a global scale caught my attention. And it's nothing White hasn't said before, but the wording on this one threw me off balance a little bit.
"We're already bigger than the NFL. We're neck and neck with soccer. That's who we're competing with," White said. "Soccer isn't huge here in the United States, but all over the rest of the world, it is. The only other thing that can work is fighting."
Earlier this year, the 2012 Euro Championship—a football/soccer tournament held every four years—pulled in 13 million viewers on the UK's BBC network to watch Spain crush Italy 4-0. In Spain, the figure on Telecinco was 15.4 million, which works out to an 83.4 percent share. That's right—83.4 percent of all televisions in Spain were tuned in to see their national football team.
The World Cup is the largest global event in sports. In 2010, the 1-0 extra time goal by Spain's Andres Iniesta to beat Netherlands was watched by 91 percent of the Italian market. Globally, FIFA claims over 900 million people tuned in to watch the final at one point or another, and that includes 15.5 million people in the United States.
I don't need to tell you that the UFC's highest-rated fight of all time—the brisk heavyweight bout between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos that aired last November on Fox—doesn't come remotely close to matching soccer's appeal on a global level. It actually doesn't even come close to matching soccer's overall appeal in the United States, where Major League Soccer has overtaken the NBA for the first time to become the USA's third-most-attended live sport.
Football—the American kind—is a mainstream sport. Families gather around the television to watch —mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandparents and teenagers. The sport, whether it be the NFL or the college kind, has a vast reach across America, as well as the parts of Canada where they have a CFL team and pretend that it's real football. (Hint: it's not.)
The UFC, and MMA as a whole, will never have that same kind of acceptance. The nature of the sport will always prevent it. White likes to say that "fighting is in our DNA," but the truth is that fighting is not part of our DNA. Fighting appeals to a certain subsection of people who will mostly overlook the violence they're witnessing in favor of seeing the beauty of technique.
And because that "fighting DNA" strand will never be prevalent among the majority of humans walking this beautiful planet Earth, the sport of MMA will never become mainstream. It will always be a niche, and that's okay.
The National Hockey League generated approximately $3.2 billion in revenue for the 2011 fiscal year. That's crazy, right? $3.2 billion in revenue is an insane amount of money. And yet, the NHL is still considered to be a niche sport—but not in Canada, of course, where hockey is a way of life. Still, across the world, hockey receives the same treatment that soccer does in America; only a tiny handful of hardcore fans will go out of their way to watch it.
Going mainstream should never be the UFC's goal. Put simply, it's never going to happen. The sport of mixed martial arts will never come even remotely close to achieving even a tenth of the global popularity of soccer or football. It will never gather thousands of families, young and old, around the television on Saturday nights to watch the fights. The nature of the sport and the inherit violence it displays—or at least a misguided perception of that violence that will never truly go away—will always prevent it from climbing out of niche status.
And you know what? That's OK. Because mixed martial arts is awesome, and anyone who doesn't like it is missing on some truly incredible moments.
But that's okay, too. Not everyone has to like everything. If they did, the world would be a lot less interesting.