So I’m at a family Christmas party this past weekend – you know the usual, old people, shrimp rings, Uncle Stevie regaling you with tales of his youth, when I bump into a casual acquaintance who I haven’t seen in a few years. Now the last time I saw this guy he was an MMA fanatic who was training full-time at Extreme Couture. He looked like he’s packed on a few pounds over the years. Nothing major, but definitely not the gym rat he was the last time we ran into each other. We said our hello’s and I inquired as to whether he was still training. He laughed and said “seriously? look at me dude.” Fair enough, I look like I swallowed a tire right now too. No harm no foul. “well are you still watching MMA?” I ask. “Not really it’s too saturated these days, I’ve kind of lost interest”. “Really I’m shocked, you were such a freak for it a few years ago”. “I know I still rent the occasional PPV but only when it’s a big fight. There’s so many fighters now I can’t keep up”.
I won’t bore you with entire conversation, but the basic fact that someone who was a huge MMA fan a few years ago is now pretty blah about the entire sport is interesting. Now I know people’s individual interests come and go, but there’s no doubt that the unbelievable hype surrounding MMA (at least in Canada) has waned over the past two years. The fact that this chat took place on a weekend of back to back free UFC cards on FX is interesting. I was pretty happy about the fact that I could watch two nights of fights in row without dropping a dime, but I couldn’t help but think the sheer volume of MMA on television might actually have a negative impact on the sports popularity?
If you rewind to 2006, arguably the breakout year for the UFC, there were 18 events. Either one or two a month. The year before that there was 10. This year the organization held 32 events, including 4 in December. I can see the logic in trying to shift from a strictly PPV business to more of a mainstream, network sport. Increase advertising revenue rather than rely on live gates, and PPV dollars alone. The problem there is the UFC is not the NFL. They’re in different solar systems when it comes to popularity in North America. If the NFL were to say ‘hey guess what football fans we’re going to start airing games all day on Saturday and Sunday for the entire year’ the popularity of the sport would at least remain the same. In fact so many people would spend every weekend indoors that relationships would be destroyed, and society as we know it might crumble.
Not so in the fight game, where the build-up is half of the battle. The wait for the big event that’s been brewing for months is what brings the casual fan on board. That ‘hey I heard there’s a big fight coming up, those guys look like they want to kill each other.’ What I fear might be happening is the number of events, and the drive to expand globally is stretching the talent pool to the point where boring fights are just as common as exciting ones. Which isn’t a good thing in the sports premier league. The counterpoint to that of course would be that the talent pool is actually improving by leaps and bounds. True enough but is the UFC the best place for that to happen? People want to see the best of the best in the big show. Not newbies figuring out the ground game.
I sat in front of the TV on Friday and Saturday night with a friend who likes the sport but isn’t a die hard fan, and by the end of Saturday he was sick of watching MMA. I know that sounds crazy but it’s true, and the best fights happened on Saturday. It was sheer volume that killed it for him. The unprecedented growth we’ve seen in MMA over the past decade is nothing short of incredible. New global markets are opening, and a new breed of fighter is emerging. Overall it’s a good time for the sport. Over-kill is a threat though. Let’s hope for every new fan gained, two old fans aren’t lost.