Is the UFC's current distribution model creating more fans than it is driving away?
In several interviews of late, UFC President Dana White has made claims predicting that within ten years, the UFC will be as popular as the NFL and even World Cup soccer. It’s hard to find fault with his reasoning. As Mr. White claims, fighting is something we just “get” at a base level. A knockout or a submission isn’t as hard to explain as say, offsides is in soccer or an illegal pick in football.
To take his thoughts even further, how many of us would stop and watch a couple of guys playing one on one soccer if we passed them on the street? Would we stop to watch a group of guys playing pick-up football in the park? Of course not. Odds are we’d just pass by and not even notice. But what if they were fighting? Without question, fighting draws us in and captures our attention. Even those who abhor violence can’t stop themselves from not only paying attention, but feeling a rush of adrenaline. This is the draw of MMA. It’s what creates lifelong fans after only one bout. The UFC has bottled this. They are growing dramatically not only within the US but abroad. It’s very easy to lend credence to Dana White’s bold prediction.
Well, maybe not just yet. Let me introduce you to my father, Big Rich. Big Rich is the guy practically every sports organization considers a rank and file member of its fan base, as they have for decades. Most of my childhood memories of Big Rich in the morning involve him reading the sports page before going to work. It seemed like anytime he had a project around the house or one of the cars needed fixing, he was listening to a baseball game on the radio while making the repairs. He would spend most late afternoons after work listening to sports talk radio. Every now and then, he’d have a few too many beers and call to tell the host he was “full of ----”. Big Rich can easily tell you who played first base for any National League team in 1968. He can tell you who holds various records for passing, rushing, scoring, tackles, sacks, receptions, and any number of records from both NFL and college football. He could probably tell you every Heisman trophy winner back to the 50s. He’d fit right in at any barber shop arguing who was the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time. Truly, Big Rich is what sports fans call a real sports fan. You’d have to search high and low to find a guy you’d rather have a beer with while watching the game. But if you ask him who Jon Jones or Anderson Silva are, he’ll probably draw a blank. Why is this?
The answer many would offer is that Big Rich isn’t in demographic the UFC is going after. He's no longer in the 18-34 year old category. But how many 18-34 year old males know little to nothing about the UFC but have a favorite NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and/or college team? There are millions. And their reasons for not tuning into the UFC are the same as Big Rich’s. It isn't that he finds MMA too violent. It's because it will be a cold day in hell before Big Rich forks over forty five of his hard earned dollars to watch three hours of programing in his living room, on his television, while sitting on his couch! And why should he? Why should anyone for that matter?
In all fairness to the UFC, they have recently signed a multi year deal with Fox TV bringing the sport to the masses on network TV. Also worthy of note is how the UFC has increased it’s cable broadcasting over the years with events on VS, Spike, and recently FX and Fuel TV. It appears for the time being that while they will broadcast important fights on Fox, the really big fights (title fights) will remain on PPV.
This in itself seems a problem on the surface. Granted, to a guy looking at the PPV numbers in a board room, this seems a sound strategy. However, if you look at it from the perspective of the typical fan trying to get by, it becomes a major obstacle to bringing this sport into the main stream. This is the fan the UFC is going after. This is the fan that follows the NFL, NBA, MLB, etc. yet doesn’t follow the UFC. This is also the absent fan base preventing the UFC from taking its place in the mainstream of sports promotions.
Think about it for a moment: What would happen to the popularity of the NFL, MLB, NBA or the NHL if they applied a business as usual approach towards broadcasting regular season and play-off games but chose to make the championship a PPV event? What if college football and basketball did the same? What if every sport we enjoy followed this model? I have to imagine their popularity would diminish. Especially in these dark and difficult economic times when many feel they are just one bad habit away from becoming homeless. “I’d really like to get into this sport, but I know I’ll love it and don’t want to fork out money I don’t have to watch the championship game.” Or worse yet, they are are put into the position of having to choose between missing the event they’ve been eagerly anticipating or running the risk of watching an illegal internet stream. Talk about a deterrent towards gaining or keeping a fan. This doesn’t even begin to address the millions of other entertainment options we have that cost significantly less than the cost of a single UFC PPV.
Take boxing for example: Boxing used to be huge. In fact, the Heavy Weight Champion of the World used to be a more prestigious position than even the quarterback of the winning Super Bowl team. Yet ask sports fans today to name the current boxing heavy weight champ and many (in not most) will draw a blank. There are many reasons contributing to boxing’s decline. But the chief contributor is the PPV model they moved to in the mid 80s. Since that decision to make all important title fights a PPV broadcast, you could see the popularity of boxing gradually decline into what it is today.
This is precisely why other sports haven’t done the exact same thing. It isn’t as if the people running these organizations are just a swell pack of guys who want to ensure we can all continue watching our favorite sports on network or cable TV. Its that they realize the big money is in network television broadcasts. The bigger the event, the bigger the advertising dollars.
Another curious point of interest is who the UFC decides to charge and how much. For example, if you just so happen to live in the United States or Canada, you are expected to pay roughly $44.95 for standard definition or $54.95 for the HD broadcast of each PPV. However, if you live in the UK, you can subscribe to the ESPN network for seven to ten pounds (roughly $11.00- $15.00 US) per month and get all of the UFC PPVs. In Belgium, it costs roughly seven euros per PPV (roughly $10.00). In Mexico, the Philippines, and Brazil, the cards are on free TV or regular cable broadcasts. In Germany, China, and France, the UFC offers free internet broadcasts. You know, the ones that Zuffa are threatening to send people to jail for watching in the United States.
What does the future hold for the UFC’s broadcast model? Hard to tell. My best guess is that they are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They are trying to recruit more fans through their partnerships with Fox Sports hoping they will increase their PPV numbers. After all, the Fox Sports broadcasts have been laden with advertisements for the upcoming “can’t miss” PPV show. Or their strategy could be to build a fan base large enough to justify placing their biggest fights on network television. I don’t know. What I do know is that until all of the major fights are on network television, the UFC will continue playing second fiddle to football, basketball, soccer, baseball, and other sports who don’t follow this distribution method proven to limit the number of potential viewers.
There is good news for the UFC though. Once they make the decision to broadcast all cards on network/cable television, they will step into the fraternity of modern main stream sports. In fact, Big Rich watched the latest UFC on Fox card and enjoyed it. This should make their sponsors very happy as Big Rich loves Bud Light. I just wouldn’t bank on any future PPV revenues from his house. For the time being they have captured Big Rich’s attention and, no doubt, millions of other potential fans who didn’t follow the UFC previously for the same reasons. The question remains will they keep these new fans once they discover they are expected to shell out the exorbitant PPVs costs for the fights they undoubtedly will want to see most?
photo credit - ohmygeek.net