by Paul Magno
In every other country where both sports exist, boxing and MMA live together in peace. A big show for one sport doesn’t mean that the end is near for the other. But, in the United States, this is not the case.
UFC President Dana White, when he first got involved with the company, adopted the slash and burn method of promotion in building his brand. He would establish his company as the antidote to all of boxing’s ills and, in the process, sell the UFC version of mixed martial arts as better, badder, and more extreme.
White’s strategy paid off and he would soon become a cult hero for the testosterone-heavy fist-pumpers of the sporting world.
Of course, it immediately alienated loyal boxing fans and those who run away from high octane marketing campaigns rather than embrace them. But this mattered little. White and the UFC brain trust, consisting of majority owners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, weren’t after the older demographic and weren’t trying to appeal to boxing loyalists. They were after the kids and young adults, mostly the white suburban males, who have plenty of disposable income, are highly internet literate, enjoy copious amounts of free time, and want to see “some dude get cracked in the mother fuckin’ face.”
Boxing had lost this key demographic for years before the UFC came along and was no longer appealing to this most vocal and cash-rich category of fan. The reasons for boxing losing them are many, but none have to do with any of the usual UFC talking points.
The boxing power brokers had willingly removed themselves from free, network TV and put themselves on premium cable. Unlike the UFC kids, who were brought up with the idea that they’d have to pay for product, boxing fans were not accustomed to the complete privatization of the sport. The move away from free TV cost boxing a good chunk of its audience and ensured that fewer new fans would be developed over the long haul. The hardcore fans were still loyal, but for casual fans, it was harder to see world class boxing.
Meanwhile, White and his crew were developing a real combat sport counter culture with its own mantras and talking points, most of which were directed at burying boxing as dead, dying, or just plane lame.
To this day, stick a microphone in White’s face long enough and some disparaging remark about boxing is bound to come out. So good is White at selling himself that he even manages to get front page attention with commentary made about boxing main events– the equivalent of MLB commissioner, Bud Selig being sought after for his analysis of the Super Bowl.
Now, well into its second decade in existence, the UFC is an established entity and White doesn’t have to go on the offensive against the sport he always claims to love. He still occasionally goes for the jugular, but now his legion of true believers carries out the piranha attacks, using the same talking points White had established years prior.
Here are the two biggest talking points from the UFC crew and a look at whether they hold any water at all.
Boxing is Dead (UFC Rules!)
There are lots of variations on this one.. Boxing is Dead, Boxing is Dying, The UFC is Killing Boxing…
None are really true, but what does the truth have to do with good, solid marketing, anyway?
Assuming we disregard the massive growth of the sport in Eastern Europe and its supreme good health in Latin America, Asia, Canada, and Western Europe, it would still be hard to make a case for the death of boxing.
The American scene has fallen out of favor with the mainstream sports world and the sport is no longer on the forefront of the nation’s collective unconscious, but this has been a trend that began long before anyone knew anything about mixed martial arts.
Non-fans and antagonists like to point fingers at any number of boxing’s problems and say, “See? That’s why boxing is dying!”
There are plenty of real and pressing issues with boxing, but none are driving fans away. Most of boxing’s current problems have existed, in one form or another, since the very beginning. Fight fans know this and have come to expect a dose of insanity with their fisticuffs. There are very few people walking away because Fighter A isn’t fighting Fighter B or because Fighter B got screwed by the judges.
More likely, fans aren’t being exposed to Fighters A, B, or C and feel no pressing need to see any of them.
When true boxing events are made featuring fighters they know and care about, fans respond with massive support. Hence, the all-time pay-per-view Top 10 consists, almost exclusively, of boxing events and the Top 3 PPV buy rates of 2011 were also boxing cards.
Actually, if one were inclined to flip the script a bit, a case could be made for a UFC in decline.
UFC pay-per-view buy rates declined from 2010 to 2011, with 2012 seemingly headed in the same downward trajectory. For the last million seller, one would have to go back to UFC 121 in 2010. For a company that had experienced steady growth from 2005 to 2010, the negative trend can’t be overlooked.
When it comes to the UFC, a trend has emerged over the last few years– As opposed to any other sport, the company seems to actually lose ground the more potential fans become exposed to it.
The UFC’s three events on Fox show this trend as UFC on Fox 1 drew 5.675 million viewers, followed by an 18% decline in viewership for UFC on Fox 2 (4.661 million) and then a 57% drop for the recent UFC on Fox 3 (2.418 million).
The company tried to spin the poor numbers by pointing to everything from The Avengers movie opening to the Mayweather-Cotto PPV on the same day to the Cinco de Mayo holiday. All are reasonable excuses for a decline, but not for an apparent mass exodus and a last place finish among network shows in its time slot.
The poor showing was also evident in their lead-in show on Fuel TV, which drew a mere 86,000 viewers (down 30% from their Fuel TV average of 122,750) and has also seen a drop in viewership for each of the three “prelims” show.
Overall, the UFC’s case for TV dominance is not convincing.
FX, which began airing UFC programming as part of the company’s mega-deal with Fox, has posted a tepid average of 1.08 million viewers per show since the deal, despite being available in 99 million households in the U.S.
Fuel TV, available in 36 million households, has done even lower numbers than their bigger broadcast partners in the Fox company. Averaging just around 122,750 viewers for their first-run prelims, the network also airs a UFC Tonight magazine show that has posted an average viewership of about 40,000.
By comparison, boxing on HBO drew an average of 1.42 million viewers per show in 2011 and, most recently, registered 1.5 million viewers for Bernard Hopkins vs. Chad Dawson II.
So, in the world of combat sports on TV, HBO Boxing consistently posts higher numbers than any cable UFC show– and does it with just 29 million HBO subscribers.
ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights attracted an average of 543,000 viewers per show in 2011, also significantly higher than any of the UFC’s second-tier programming and a 9% increase over 2010’s numbers.
Throw in shows from Spanish-language channels like Telefutura, Telemundo, Azteca America, and Fox Latino and boxing’s numbers grow even larger.
The UFC has more hours of TV programming per week, but none of the shows match the high-end boxing shows and, on average, do poorer numbers than their boxing counterparts.
Even at its worst, the UFC still delivers its target demographic group of men, 18-34, but in head to head comparisons, it falls behind the overall numbers posted by boxing shows.
On PPV, boxing stars Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather trump anyone on the UFC roster, routinely posting buy rates well in excess of 1 million, with the recent Mayweather-Cotto event selling about 1.5 million.
In the UFC, as stated earlier, the last million seller was UFC 121: Lesnar vs. Velasquez in 2010. Jones-Evans in UFC 145 sold about 700,000, but other than that, 2012 has registered an average buy rate of about 333,000.
It should also be noted that, unlike HBO, which is bound by Time Warner to release accurate sales figures, The UFC is a privately-held company under no obligation to release this info. So, all UFC buy rate info is based on estimates from industry insiders and information leaked through the tight-lipped UFC inner circle. It could very well be that all of these PPV numbers are inflated for the sake of public relations.
There is no doubt that the UFC has done a wonderful job marketing itself. Merchandising, combined with a very vocal and internet-savvy fan base, has created the impression that the UFC is a tidal wave of toughness, washing the sport of boxing into the sea. But the numbers don’t bear this out.
The UFC was able to land a major deal with Fox and that’s something boxing hasn’t been able to do, but given the recent numbers and the overall downward trend, one has to wonder whether Fox bought the sizzle before seeing the steak.
Despite the ratings dips, the UFC is still doing well, but it’s closer to treading water than “killing” boxing.
In The UFC the Best Fight the Best
This is usually the second salvo fired at boxing fans as proof of UFC superiority.
It may be true, but let’s back it up a bit and put things in their proper perspective.
There are no official rankings in the UFC. So, “The Best” is a very relative term, entirely decided by the members of the company’s management team.
Fights are made with marketing in mind and then hard-sold to the fan base. Stars are created, not necessarily by public demand, but by management design. Sure, the fans are getting the “best vs. the best,” but don’t think for a moment that strings aren’t being pulled behind the scenes to sell the biggest figure as the best fighter.
The perfect case in point is the WWE’s Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar lost his UFC debut to Frank Mir in February of 2008 and then, just nine months and two fight later, suddenly found himself beating Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight title. If the UFC die-hards’ mantra is to be believed, Lesnar must’ve become the “best” during those nine months between his debut loss and his title challenge. Whatever the case, Lesnar would go on to become the company’s figurehead and top draw in his two-defense reign as heavyweight champ. His rapid, two-year trek from retired pro-wrestler to UFC figurehead showed what the company is really about– Marketing.
Lesnar was the “best” because he had been designated as the best by those looking to sell pay-per-views. The rest of the UFC matchmaking structure, whether they cop to it or not, falls right behind that logic.
But, as anyone who knows matchmaking can attest to, the biggest fight isn’t always the best fight
In the face of boxing’s big-fight stifling promotional politics, it’s certainly tempting to demand a more populist bent to the matchmaking. But that’s not how a sport is run. If baseball were run with the same mindset, only the Yankees and Dodgers would be in the World Series.
If boxing were to adopt the UFC model, we very well could see Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, but we could just as likely see, down the road, Kimbo Slice vs. Bobby Lashley for the world heavyweight title. There’s a reason sports aren’t run with only marketing in mind. There’s a reason rankings and standings exist.
It’s no mystery why White has been dragging his feet for years when it comes to establishing official rankings– and it’s the same reason that most of boxing’s power brokers are also slow to endorse real, unbiased and binding rankings. Once you take the game away from the hustler, the easy money flies out the window.
Also, before endorsing the “best vs. best” mantra, one should remember that White has never shown a willingness to make fights outside of his in-house control. So, in that aspect, there’s really not much difference between Dana White and a guy like Bob Arum. Except, in White’s case, he essentially owns the sport in the U.S: and can buy out any competition.
All in all, the UFC, working with just a handful of viable fighters and in almost full control of every well-known, U.S. based MMA competitor, can dictate each and every term to its fighters. They can also rig the game so that their matchmaking goes hand in hand with their marketing.
This is something boxing couldn’t do, even if it were healthy to do so. The UFC website lists just 355 fighters in eight divisions and only a small percentage of these are viable, main stage fighters. In boxing’s heavyweight division, alone, there are 1,125 rankable fighters, spread out over dozens of countries and all with different managerial/promotional ties (some with no ties at all).
Comparing the UFC and boxing in terms of matchmaking ability is like trying to compare the business structure of a neighborhood 7-11 with the entire Walmart corporation. The UFC has, maybe, a dozen viable fighters in each weight class who would have no one to fight if they didn’t fight each other.
If that’s the definition of “best vs. best,” then this is a very relative term. So relative that it actually means very little.
What the UFC has accomplished is a major feat. They’ve essentially built an entire sport within the American market and have managed to become a major economic force. But is it really a sport or just a sporting exhibition wonderfully marketed to the right demographic group? Ethically, there’s also a major concern about just how little the fighters are benefiting from their own hard work, but that’s a topic for another day.
The hype machine created by Dana White and his people has generated several myths around their product and its place in the sporting world. And, just like the actual sport, there’s significantly more sizzle than steak.
The UFC is not so dominant that it’s making boxing irrelevant and it’s definitely not killing boxing. As a matter of fact, recent trends show that UFC management should be more focused on where their own product is headed and how they may need to adapt to an increasingly sophisticated fan base.
Boxing’s only real enemy is itself and you will read many articles about its various missteps in the pages of The Boxing Tribune. It surely doesn’t need fabricated enemies taking potshots at it, armed to the teeth with misleading and often erroneous talking points from Dana White.
* all UFC TV ratings info attained from MMApayout.com and from Yahoo! Sports (HERE and HERE). Boxing TV ratings information was attained through press release and this Yahoo! Sports article.
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