The world's largest MMA promotion has, thus far, continued its successful foray into the mainstream sports world following another exciting UFC on Fox card; however, don't expect the company to slow down anytime soon.
One bright sign for the UFC's future is the announcement by Fox officials that the promotion will be a major component of the company's newly created sports network, Fox Sports 1. Hoping to contend with the "worldwide leader in sports," ESPN, if the new network emerges as a major player on the sports broadcast scene, expect the UFC to be key part of Fox Sports 1's rise in popularity.
While things seem to be looking up for the promotion, like all major sports leagues, there are a few lingering factors that may hinder its rapid growth.
Let's take a look at some of the big issues that will have an effect on the future of the UFC.
One of the biggest positive signs for the UFC over the past few months has been the constant influx of talented up-and-comers.
While some hype trains have been derailed (ahem, Uriah Hall), other UFC newcomers like Ireland's Conor McGregor, TUF 17 winner Kelvin Gastelum and Olympic wrestling silver medalist Yoel Romero have shined in their first appearances inside the Octagon.
This may not be indicative of their future performances; however, it does show the rapidly rising level of talent among MMA's budding prospects.
As fighters keep getting better and better, that can only benefit the UFC's quality of fights.
From commentator Joe Rogan to UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione, many of MMA's biggest personalities have gotten into some trouble for their remarks about transgender fighter Fallon Fox.
Some people, like "Meathead," crossed the line with their remarks, forcing the UFC to enforce various punishments outlined in the promotion's code of conduct.
Now, this isn't the first time the UFC has had to deal with its athletes causing a firestorm for their asinine statements (see Miguel Torres' and Forrest Griffin's Twitter debacles), but it's a problem that will only increase in the future if the promotion doesn't take steps now to curb it.
Personally, I feel like the UFC handled the Mitrione situation well, as the punishment handed out showed just how serious White and Co. are about their athletes making bigoted remarks.
Going forward, if the UFC wants to reach the same level of mainstream popularity as the NFL or MLB and not alienate potential fans, its code of conduct will be a major factor in dealing with how the public perceives the promotion's fighters.
One tool that has been a bit of a double-edged sword for the UFC has been its innovative use of social media.
On the bright side, the UFC has proven to be at the pinnacle of using things like Facebook and Twitter to not only market its fights, but also to connect with fans on a level that no other sports league has. From president Dana White to the promotion's huge roster of fighters, every one seems to be on the various social media platforms, creating a constant dialogue between the members of the MMA community.
The promotion's interesting use of Facebook to stream fights is also another way the UFC uses social media to successfully connect with fans in this increasingly digital world.
While this new medium has bridged the gap between athletes and fans in many ways, it's also created some problems when announcements are falsely reported, fighters post controversial statements or any of the other number of issues that arise due to social media. However, the UFC been pretty smart with the way it handles online controversies, proving once again why it's at the forefront of using these new digital tools.
As the company continues to expand, expect social media to play an even bigger role in the UFC's growth.
One of the biggest challenges the UFC and president Dana White have had to face over the past few years is getting MMA legalized in the state of New York.
While it appeared that 2013 would be the year that professional MMA would finally be sanctioned in the Empire State, White recently stated that it was unlikely that a bill would be passed this year.
This obviously won't stop the UFC from having events, especially in neighboring states; however, being barred from holding fights in New York, one of the biggest sports hubs in the world, is hindering MMA's full-on, mainstream acceptance.
Just imagine how big an event at Madison Square Garden, for example, would be for both the state and the UFC.
The UFC has a broadcasting strategy that is unlike any of the other major sports leagues.
Unlike boxing, the UFC has shown many top title fights for free on Fox, choosing not to solely broadcast big bouts on pay-per-view.
Considering the promotion's deal with Fox, the UFC seems to be content with featuring many of its cards on free television—a smart move that will help to gain more casual fans.
The pay-per-view model won't be completely eroded, as many big draws like Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones will bring in a lot of buys for the promotion.
However, it will be interesting to see how the UFC continues to balance its free and paid content, and how that will affect the company's financial future.
Looking toward the promotion's more immediate future, one of the biggest changes coming up for the UFC will be its first-ever male-and-female edition of The Ultimate Fighter when the show moves to Fox Sports 1 later this year.
While some critics see the show turning into a Real World-type of situation, the influx of female talent will definitely bring in more women viewers and hopefully add to the sport's number of female fans.
The mixed cast should invigorate the long-running reality series and will likely be at the forefront of Fox Sports 1's programming.
One of the biggest black eyes for MMA has been the controversial use of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) and various performance enhancing drug (PED) use by certain segments of the fight community.
While all sports have had to deal with steroids and the usage of other PEDs, this problem is especially concerning for the UFC considering the violent nature of the sport. Not only is this important for fighters' safety, but it's important for the image of the sport as well.
If the UFC wants to keep its competitive legitimacy, it has to curb this problem as best as it can.
As Fox tries to become a major player on the sports broadcasting scene, the UFC's success on the new channel will be an integral part to the growth of Fox Sports 1.
Fox knows that it has cornered the MMA audience market, and it will try to expand the sports popularity among casual fans with its various UFC programs and events. While the UFC will benefit from its increased exposure, it is unclear whether the promotion will provide the necessary ratings boosts for the network to contend with the likes of ESPN.
Both the UFC and Fox Sports 1 will have to work closely together on their marketing strategies if they both want to become household brands, a feat I believe they can accomplish with the right programming and personalities.
In terms of the actual athletes competing in the UFC, no division will have a bigger impact on the promotion's future than the newly created women's bantamweight division.
Champ Ronda Rousey and the growing number of women entering the Octagon will be a major factor in the growth of the UFC's contingency of female fans. And, between the historic UFC 157 and even the recent bout between Miesha Tate and Cat Zingano, the popularity of these women warriors has skyrocketed, proving that there's a ton of interest in WMMA.
As the division continues to grow, thanks in part to the upcoming edition of TUF, expect the UFC to benefit from the increased attention of its female fighters.
The one factor that will be a major part of the promotion's long-term sustainability and growth will be the UFC's continued expansion into different markets around the globe.
The promotion has seen a huge rise in the quality of talent from around the world, highlighted by two successful international editions of TUF as well as the surprising popularity of various fight cards held on foreign soil.
For example, while the UFC's recent endeavor to Sweden was marred by the last-minute change to the main event, the show still captured the interest of international fight fans and brought a new star to the forefront in the form of Irish featherweight Conor McGregor.
As the UFC continues to grow in various markets around the world, the influx of international talent and expansion of the promotion into new countries will be a huge factor in the UFC's long-term success.