Thanks to lucrative streaming and endorsement deals, it seems as if the UFC and MMA are more prominent than ever. What was once a niche pay-per-view event has evolved into one of the biggest sports brands in the world. How did MMA and UFC become such massive brands?
Here are 7 reasons MMA is so popular:
- The sport has marketable stars.
- MMA features mainstream crossover.
- It has a cohesive ruleset.
- Fighters can combine various disciplines.
- MMA promotes cultural diversity.
- Many gyms worldwide offer MMA.
- People can easily watch MMA bouts online.
Let's take a deeper look at how each of these reasons contributes to the continued growth of MMA. Then, we'll take a quick look at why certain fighters and fans are moving away from UFC, even as the brand continues to build.
1. The Sport Has Marketable Stars
First, and perhaps foremost, MMA has marketable stars.
Unlike team sports, an MMA fight entirely focuses on 2 athletes rather than 2 teams. These athletes and their personalities are at the forefront of every single one of their matches.
The most famous MMA athletes have thousands of social media followers and massive cult followings. This fame can be a blessing and a curse (see the controversial boasts of Conor McGregor). Ultimately, however, it leads to a more considerable MMA viewership.
A Nielsen study in 2016 showed that Ronda Rousey was both the most popular MMA fighter and one of the top 8% of famous athletes in the world. Since then, MMA has continued to grow.
2. MMA Features Mainstream Crossover
Speaking of Rousey, several MMA fighters have made the leap from the Octagon to the big screen.
MMA stars such as Rousey, Gina Carano, Randy Couture, and Oleg Taktarov have played significant roles in feature films. Major studios that have worked with former fighters include Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Lionsgate.
Beyond films, MMA fighters also make millions in endorsements. Conor McGregor was the top athlete earner in 2020, beating out other stars such as Lionel Messi and LeBron James. This wealth is thanks to endorsements including DraftKings, Roots of Fight, and his whiskey brand Proper No. Twelve.
Other MMA combatants have had similar advertisement success. Through both film and advertisement, fighters continue to crossover into different spheres of influence.
3. It Has a Cohesive Ruleset
Thanks to trial and error, MMA has a cohesive, battle-tested ruleset.
When the UFC first started to broadcast MMA fights in 1993, the sport lacked almost any rules. There were only 3, namely:
- No biting
- No eye-gouging
- No groin strikes
These rules left wiggle room for all sorts of controversial maneuvers. The original UFC fights were so contentious that they led former presidential candidate John McCain to refer to them as human cockfighting.
In response to the controversy, the UFC began to update its rules. These efforts culminated in April 2001, as the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board created the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.
Many governing bodies accepted the Unified Rules of MMA. As a result, the rules became the established MMA ruleset. With cohesive rules across brands, MMA transitioned from a spectacle to an actual sport. The changes satisfied even McCain.
4. Fighters Can Combine Various Disciplines
Within these rules, fighters can experiment and combine dozens of different fighting styles.
The UFC's website lists 9 fighting styles:
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
- Kung Fu
Within each of these styles lay several variations. For Karate alone, the UFC lists variations such as "Kyokushinkai, Shotokan, Goju-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, and Kenpo." Each of the categories above has similar layers of complexity.
MMA fighters don't stick with one style either. The sport is called "mixed martial arts" for a reason; fighters must combine elements of several disciplines above to succeed.
Successful fighters combine at least some variation of strikes, takedowns, and submissions. MMA participants need to train in at least 3 of these martial arts to utilize all 3 of these skills. Check out this list to check out how many influences affect McGregor’s style.
Most professional combatants combine even more.
With so many martial arts to choose from, there are near-infinite stylistic possibilities within an MMA bout.
5. MMA Promotes Cultural Diversity
The diversity of styles in MMA naturally leads to cultural diversity in the sport as well.
A Reddit user has even compiled a list of MMA champions to show just how diverse the sport is. Champions come from countries such as:
- United States
Beyond these champions, diversity only increases. Thanks to diversity, the sport is both more entertaining and globally appealing.
At the 2017 Golden Globes, Meryl Streep levied criticism against the MMA as she spoke against xenophobia in Hollywood. MMA fighters were quick to speak up; MMA is both an art and more diverse than Hollywood.
6. Many Gyms Worldwide Offer MMA
An abundance of gyms only escalates diversity within MMA.
The UFC alone has opened 150 gym locations, with 500 additional locations in development globally. These officially sponsored gyms offer hands-on training in several martial arts that comprise MMA. They also provide a variety of other fitness courses. To sign up for a UFC Gym, click here.
Beyond UFC Gyms, up-and-coming fighters can train at the martial arts gym of their choosing. With so many styles to choose from, trainees will indeed find a place that fits their needs.
7. People Can Easily Watch MMA Bouts Online
MMA isn’t only accessible to train for but also accessible to watch.
Starting in January 2019, the UFC inked a deal with The Walt Disney Company to stream their bouts on ESPN+. Subscribers to the service can stream pay-per-view bouts and all sorts of other MMA content. Click here to learn more about ESPN+.
Even without streaming, it's easy to access UFC bouts. The UFC itself offers this tool that finds bars airing events.
New leagues such as Bellator and DREAM also offer alternatives to the UFC. Whatever institution you choose, MMA is at your fingertips.
Has UFC Lost Popularity?
Despite its role in the growth of MMA, UFC has dealt with its fair share of criticism in the last few years. As leagues above like Bellator and DREAM rise in prestige, the UFC is no longer the sole option to watch MMA. With all these factors, has the UFC lost popularity?
The UFC’s popularity and ratings have remained consistent, despite having also lost several fighters and hardcore fans due to payment disputes and aging demographics.
We'll take a deeper look at why some combatants and fans have left the UFC. Then, we'll see how the UFC remains popular regardless of these losses.
Many Fighters Felt Underpaid
Many UFC fighters have threatened retirement or retired from the organization. Combatants utilize this threat as a bargaining chip to raise their salaries.
According to the New York Times, less than 20% of the sport's revenue goes to UFC fighters. This lack of pay contrasts with more significant team sports, where athletes may receive roughly 50 percent.
Additionally, the UFC requires its fighters to sign long-term contracts. These settlements give fighters no choice but to stick with low wages if they wish to remain on the UFC circuit.
Many fighters would rather retire from the sport outright than continue to work for less than their perceived value.
Notable retirements include repeat champion Henry Cejduo and the aforementioned Conor McGregor. Countless others have publicly threatened the act as well.
Until UFC renegotiates contracts with their stars, other fighters may follow suit.
The Demographics Are Changing
Many of the fans that made UFC so famous in its heyday have moved on from the sport.
Both UFC and MMA at large initially marketed themselves towards younger males. In its initial heyday, these fervent, high school and college-aged men sustained UFC. As they grew up, however, members of these demographics lost the time, money, and energy to commit to the sport.
Not only have these fans fallen off, but today's teenagers seem less inclined to watch UFC as well. In a piece about UFC's initial fanbase decline, Chad Dundas of The Athletic interviews Chad Menefee of the SSRS, a market research consulting firm. Menefee explains that "in 2011, around 29 percent of teenage males were avid MMA fans. Today that is closer to 19 percent."
With current and former teenage fans, UFC has certainly lost popularity.
UFC Maintains Consistent Ratings
Despite these losses, UFC ratings remain consistent and solid, if not on the rise.
Columnist Kevin Iole of YahooSports noted that 3 of the 5 largest pay-per-views have come during the coronavirus era. Beyond pay-per-view, the UFC is the only sports brand that stayed consistent or grew from its pre-pandemic ratings.
Additionally, despite some fans leaving the sport, UFC has seen a growth in interest amongst new demographics. Adults 35-54, adults 55+, women, and Hispanics all watch UFC with greater frequency.
Finally, even prelims like those for UFC 261 have topped cable ratings as recently as this April. Ratings for rival leagues such as the PFL pale in comparison.
UFC may be in danger of losing some of its most fervent fans and stars. That being said, financially, they're doing just fine.
- Popculture: Sports Conor McGregor Boasted About His Wealth Again, and Fans Are Rolling Their Eyes
- MMA Mania: Nielsen report: Ronda Rousey more marketable than Conor McGregor, 90 percent of celebrity athletes
- Screen Rant: 10 Best MMA Fighters-Turned-Actors
- Market Watch: Conor McGregor tops the list of highest-paid sports stars
- Bleacher Report: A Timeline of UFC Rules
- Slate: John McCain UFC: How he Grew to Tolerate MMA, the Sport he Likened to "Human Cockfighting"
- UFC: Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts
- UFC: Introduction to MMA
- Sportskeeda: Conor McGregor's fighting style: Which are the different martial arts that the Irishman uses in MMA?
- Reddit: The diversity of ethnicity in current UFC Champions is crazy
- Fox Business: MMA Fighters Respond To Meryl Streep's Diversity Jab
- PR Newswire: UFC Gym to Open First UFC Fit Location In Puyallup, Washington
- UFC: UFC Reaches Groundbreaking Deal with Walt Disney Company and ESPN
- The New York Times: In U.F.C., Retirement Threats Are the Fighters' New Leverage
- The Athletic: ‘It lost its edge’: During a decade of growth and change, some MMA hardcores drifted away
- Yahoo! Sports: UFC's TV ratings amid COVID-19 pandemic a sign of growing fan interest
- MMA Fighting: Ratings Report: UFC 261 prelims deliver No.1 rating for cable on Saturday night, PFL returns with average numbers
- UFC Gym: Locations
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