The mainstream sports media has been abuzz recently with the release of the pay-per-view statistics from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. This week Yahoo reported that the UFC was one of the top 5 searched items. An Associated Press article compared the results to the king of pay-per-view, professional wrestling.
The reaction from the sports media is one of surprise, but it shouldn’t be. To a sports economist, the rise in popularity is easy to explain.
When many think of the UFC, they think of the no-holds-barred slugfest of the old days. These views are not unfounded as the company was banned from holding events in nearly every state due to its lack of rules and regulation. Sen. John McCain also famously waged a war against the company and sought to ban it from operating in the United States.
However, in 2001, the company was bought by Zuffa LLC and changes began being made. The new company led by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and current UFC president Dana White sought to regulate the competition and make it a recognized sport. Gone were the days of eye-gouging and kicking a downed opponent.
To the casual fan, these changes may not have seemed like much, but the changes were the beginning of the rise in the newly recognized sport’s popularity. They were also helped by the decline of a major rival.
For years, the number one combat sport in the world was boxing. The sport featured superstars like Joe Lewis, Mohammed Ali, “Sugar” Ray Robinson, and George Foreman. As the sport evolved and the fighters became older, there were always young, hungry fighters to take their place. Boxing, however, had its problems with shady promoters and troubled stars. Gradually the stars became fewer and the attendance did the same.
Enter the UFC.
In many ways, the UFC represents an evolution in the world of combat sports. Many of the sports stars have been trained in boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, or a combination of two or more of these. The mixed martial artists – as they are known to fans – are therefore more skilled and well-rounded fighters than boxers. This change presents the opportunity for much more entertaining fights.
Today, the UFC is creating its own stars. In addition to headliners such as “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” Tito Ortiz, Tim “the Maine-iac” Sylvia, and “The Iceman” Chuck Liddell, the company is creating new stars on its television show aptly titled “The Ultimate Fighter”. The show is designed to find the best mixed martial artists in the world and offer the winner of the show a contract to fight in the UFC. This show is perhaps the best business decision – next to the regulation of the sport – that Zuffa has made. The show has allowed fans to get to know the fighters and develop favorites, while also learning more about the sport.
While many sports reporters and casual fans may still perceive the UFC as a lawless bloodfest, the sports economist sees a sport that has evolved to attract mainstream appeal.