MMA Business: The UFC has abandoned traditional sports practices to focus on entertainment value, and it’s paying off big time
Once upon a time (specifically back in 2008) Dana White proclaimed that MMA, with the UFC at its helm, would eventually be the most popular sport in the world. Over the next couple of years, he reiterated that statement multiple times in various interviews, with quotes ranging from “UFC will be the biggest sport in the world by 2020” to “[The UFC is] going to be the biggest sport in the world. Bigger than the NFL. Bigger than soccer. Bigger than anybody.”
Following White’s comments, the world’s largest MMA promotion took several steps to achieve that goal. These included adding a rankings system composed of media outlets, introducing stringent drug testing headed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and securing a new television broadcast rights deal with ESPN for $1.5 billion over the course of five years.
In many people’s eyes, the organization was making all the right moves to become a mainstream sport.
But over the past couple of years, the UFC has made a stark change in its strategy. Now focused heavily on promoting their biggest pay-per-view stars and endorsing “money fights” that put profit over merit, many of the organization’s tenet’s on achieving the level of the NFL or Soccer have deteriorated. The rankings system has dwindled to a handful of members and is often ignored, and USADA has lost most of its credibility by handing out undue suspensions and showing what appears to be preferential treatment for certain fighters. Unseemly actions outside of the octagon by fighters—even criminal ones—go unpunished if it helps to fuel momentum for an upcoming fight.
These changes confirm something that many have believed since the company was sold to Endeavor back in 2016—the UFC has fully embraced becoming an entertainment entity rather than a traditional sports organization.
UFC 229 and the UFC’s Involvement
One need only examine the events surrounding UFC 229 and its aftermath to see it.
After submitting Conor McGregor to defend his lightweight title and solidify his legacy as an all-time great, Khabib Nurmagomedov jumped the cage to attack McGregor’s training partner Dillon Danis and sparked a brawl that involved UFC fighters, their teammates, and a massive amount of security personnel. The melee not only caused chaos, but also resulted in both Nurmagomedov and McGregor being escorted from the arena while announcer Bruce Buffer read the official decision of the main event alone in the center of the octagon.
Although Dana White said he was “Disgusted and sick” over the attack, it was nothing new for the organization, as McGregor’s own assault against Nurmagomedov in April at UFC 223 led to criminal charges against the Irish superstar as well as several of his crew. White had similar disparaging remarks regarding that incident, which injured multiple fighters and canceled 2 bouts for the promotion’s fourth pay-per-view event of 2018, but quickly changed his tune after realizing the mainstream buzz surrounding McGregor’s actions, even using footage of the skirmish for promotional material in the buildup to UFC 229.
The UFC also took little to no action regarding either incident. The company opted to let the New York judicial system decide the Irishman’s fate, which amounted to an extremely light slap on the wrist, and while Nurmagomedov must face the Nevada State Athletic Commission in the coming weeks, White has already come out and said that the Dagestani would not be stripped of his lightweight title for his actions in the UFC 229 brawl.
When asked during the UFC 229 post-fight press conference if White believed had there been some sort of suspension or fines for McGregor’s actions at UFC 223 from the promotion would it have deterred the mayhem that occurred that night, White responded, “We didn’t [enforce penalties] so I don’t know. But my guess would be no.”
Not Boxing, Not WWE, Something Different Entirely
While some fans and pundits have used the events at UFC 229 to point out the company’s similarities to boxing, the post-fight brawl being more comparable to the infamous Tyson-Holyfield II melee than anything else, the way in which the promotion is running the business is a far cry from its sister combat sport.
During the fanfare of the McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov showdown, the company confirmed to several media outlets that they were pulling Valentina Shevchenko from her scheduled flyweight title bout with Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 231 in Toronto, Canada, to headline UFC 230 in New York against Sijara Eubanks for the same belt. This came to the chagrin of fans and the former strawweight champion, who on an Instagram post expressed her anger over the decision.
“I feel truly resentful about the breach of the fight agreement.” Jedrzejczyk said, “My feelings are even more intensified when I think of the obligations I had to resign from, as they would have happened in the time of my camp”
After Derek Lewis’s comeback performance at UFC 229, however, a heavyweight title fight between Lewis and Daniel Cormier was officially announced as the Madison Square Garden headliner instead, leaving the UFC to reinstate Jedrzejczyk’s fight against Shevchenko and rebook Eubanks against former flyweight title challenger Roxanne Modafferi on the UFC 230 undercard. This time it was Eubanks who took to social media, stating that White and matchmaker Mick Maynard were “playing with her life” and they should “stop running [the UFC] like a circus.”
This example highlights arguably the biggest difference between the UFC and boxing—whereas in boxing contenders are determined by an outside governing body, the UFC can unilaterally move fights and decide contenders on a whim, regardless of signed bout agreements.
This type of leverage and the lack of legislative protection that boxing is given through the Ali Act structures the UFC more like a professional wrestling promotion than a boxing organization, let alone a major sports franchise. Even though you won’t see Stipe Miocic tear through the cage to interrupt the UFC 230 main event, crazy-eyed and a steel chair in hand, you also won’t see a clear path to a title shot for fighters without a strong fan base and impressive resume.
Is the New Strategy Paying Off?
But as the promotion dives ever deeper into the abyss of drama and spectacle, a crucial question still remains: for all its newfound favoritism, all its blatant disregard of the unspoken rules for how a sports organization should act, what has the UFC received in return?
The answer is more money than it has ever known.
According to insider Jed I. Goodman, Yahoo has estimated UFC 229 to have sold a record-breaking 2.4-2.5 million pay-per-view buys, almost a million higher than the previous record holder of UFC 202. The event’s live gate was $17.2 million, just shy of the record $17.7 million set at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden two years earlier and would be more pay-per-view buys than all the other UFC events this year combined.
During a time when television ratings and event buy rates have been on the decline, If the numbers hold up it will confirm that such an approach has its advantages, even if it bucks how traditional sports market themselves.
With the UFC under pressure from its new owners to produce, the company has chosen its path, and it’s too late to turn back now. The UFC is not the WWE, boxing, or the NFL—It’s a strange mixture of all of them that equates to an entertainment powerhouse, and for the time being, they should continue to embrace it.