THOSE WHO QUESTIONED the business case behind WME-IMG’s eye-watering $4bn takeover of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) were provided with timely evidence of the commercial value of the mixed martial arts juggernaut on November 12.
UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden set a new record in gate revenue for the famous New York venue, with the 20,427 fans present generating $17.7m.
Although specific numbers were not immediately available, the event also generated record pay-per-view figures for UFC, beating the previous record of 1.65 million buys for UFC 202. On social media there were more than 2.9 million interactions and more than 1.5 million unique messages about the event, with Irishman Conor McGregor’s victory over American Eddie Alvarez topping the bill.
UFC 205 illustrated that UFC, and mixed martial arts (MMA), is big business when it is packaged well, especially when the headline bout features someone like McGregor, who has mastered the art of headline-grabbing ‘trash talking’ like few others in the fight business.
When many people think of MMA, they think of UFC; and UFC is unashamedly brutal, brash and bloody – ‘qualities’ that are perhaps not traditionally associated with the Olympic Movement.
However, is MMA at the Olympics such an unrealistic proposition?
In August UFC president Dana White revealed that the organisation had been supporting efforts to introduce MMA to the Olympic programme for as long as five years, without disclosing exactly the nature of any lobbying.
“They have judo, which uses submissions and chokeholds,” White said. “They have boxing, where you can punch to the body and head. They have taekwondo, where you can use kicks and punches. Everything we do is already in Olympic sports, so it makes sense.”
Then, in October, two rival MMA organisations made significant moves.
— #TUFFinale (@ufc) November 29, 2016
Firstly, the World Mixed Martial Arts Association (WMMAA) said that it would submit an application to the International Olympic Committee in 2017 for MMA to be recognised as an Olympic discipline.
“We already have our documents ready,” WMMAA president Vadim Finkelstein told Russian news agency Tass. “There are more than 60 countries in our federation. I believe that MMA will be in the Olympic programme in the future, but it is not something achievable in the next year or two.”
Then, just days later, the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) announced that it had submitted an application to SportAccord, the umbrella body of international sport federations, for official recognition as the international governing body for mixed martial arts.
Earlier this year, the IMMAF submitted an application to the World Anti-Doping Agency to become a signatory to the Wada Code. Acceptance would render IMMAF fully compliant to eligibility criteria for SportAccord.
“Other criteria such as member federation numbers and recognition by sports ministers, governments and Olympic committees of those federations are also paramount to the merits of the application,” IMMAF president Kerrith Brown tells SportBusiness International.
“Subject to the decision from Wada, we are confident that we have met the criteria required and that our application will be seriously considered to receive membership status.”
Acceptance by a mainstream body such as SportAccord would benefit MMA in a number of ways. The sport is still relatively young, having had a false start in the 1980s, before becoming increasingly popular after the turn of the millennium.
Learning from the experiences of other sports and federations would be an important benefit, as would the possibility of being part of SportAccord’s multi-sport games agenda, according to Brown.
“As IMMAF is in the early stages of establishing itself as an international federation, to be able to connect with others across the world is very important for its development and learning process – as with any federation,” he says.
“MMA falls within the combat sports category as a combination of the core martial arts, so we are enriched by the knowledge, morals, values, practices and, most of all, passion, from all of these. While MMA has evolved into a discipline and style of its own, and we must protect the interests of MMA’s stakeholders, it is imperative that the integrity and values of all core sports are maintained and respected for MMA to be embraced as a sport within its own right.”
On the face of it, aside from the commercial proposition, there are no obvious reasons why MMA should not be a strong candidate for Olympic inclusion in the long term. MMA combines techniques from established Olympic sports, such as judo, boxing, taekwondo and wrestling, as well as Muay Thai, which has been a member of SportAccord for 10 years.
Additionally, if gender equality is a prerequisite for Olympic inclusion, female MMA stars such as Ronda Rousey have arguably done as much to promote the sport as top male athletes in recent years.
However, despite ticking many of the boxes, MMA is still treated with caution in some quarters, with others displaying outright contempt.
At the end of October the French sports ministry passed a decree to outlaw both the octagonal cage and several integral MMA techniques, effectively banning the sport across the country.
It should also be noted that the all-conquering UFC 205 was the first event staged by the series in New York, after a bill was only passed to legalise professional MMA in the state earlier this year.
Eoghan Corry is an Irish journalist and author who has been an outspoken critic of MMA.
“MMA is a terrific theatrical spectacle and has brought lots of excitement to a lot of peoples’ lives, but is not a sport in any sense of the word,” Corry says.
“It has been a huge commercial success and there are so many stakeholders and vested interests, including media interests, who have come along for the ride, that it has prevented the merits of MMA as a sport being debated properly. This may be to the spectacle’s long-term disadvantage.”
Central to Corry’s argument is that MMA is a “top-down commercial organisation” that was a “theatrical event fitted out for TV, which then started encouraging participants” without having first established the foundations of a significant participant base.
“Most bottom-up organisations – the structures we would recognise in sporting culture today – evolved from the pastimes of the 19th century, including the six constituent sports from which MMA is derived,” he says. “The characteristics of ‘bottom up’ evolved sports made them robust to challenges such as fragmentation.”
In May the UFC extended a partnership with the IMMAF, allowing the two parties to work together to support the “safe practice and promotion of amateur MMA series.” According to a report published earlier this year, MMA is second only to adventure racing when it comes to growth in participation numbers in sport worldwide, recording a 19.5-per-cent increase since 2013.
However, Corry argues that MMA’s leading stakeholders face a crossroads.
“MMA’s big choice is deciding if it is a commercial operation or whether it wants to become a sport, with a participatory basis and proper structures, and a vision that is not commercially motivated,” he adds.
“I don’t think MMA has even started to tackle the challenges it must overcome to become an ‘established’ sport. The commercial agenda of MMA means that selling the spectacle and other short-term objectives will take precedence over any longer-term vision.”
Corry is not alone in claiming that MMA is popular for “disturbing reasons” of bloodlust.
“Combat sports each have responsibilities as to what message they are offering to broader society,” he adds. “MMA is not troubled by any of the responsibilities that face other combat sports, those with a participatory base, but driven instead by the commercial appeal of blood on the canvas.”
Brown acknowledges that there is still plenty of work to do to raise the profile of MMA and is willing to tackle the critics’ concerns head-on.
“From a commercial and audience point of view, MMA can be considered a mainstream sport,” he says. “On the other hand, from a recognition and establishment media point of view – outside the US and Sweden –it still has some way to go.”
MMA’s reputation has been difficult to turn around since its early branding as ‘no-holds barred fighting’, according to Brown.
“The mindset is shifting as the drive for recognition and regulation of MMA is becoming more apparent,” he adds. “However, MMA still has a long road ahead in educating the masses on the significant differences between ‘cage fighting’ and well-regulated MMA.”
Key to IMMAF’s drive to improve MMA’s reputation is to tackle concerns about safety in the sport.
Although the results of newly-published research by The American Journal of Sports Medicine have been questioned by some in MMA circles, others have been perturbed by the study’s findings, which indicated that rates of traumatic brain injuries are three times higher for MMA fighters than boxers and eight times higher than kickboxers.
“MMA still needs to improve universal safety standards at a grassroots level through regulation and clean up its image before it can truly be accepted as a mainstream sport,” Brown adds. “IMMAF provides an elevated level of medical provision, such as the pre and post-competition evaluation of athletes to include compulsory MRIs and hospital evaluation in the event of a knockout.
“We use IMMAF-accredited referees, judges and cutmen. IMMAF competitor wear has seen the introduction of rash guards and shin guards, and the use of a 7oz glove, which is curved to reduce eye pokes and which is already proving effective in reducing injuries.”
Organisations such as SportAccord, and other international federations, can help to provide MMA with the required guidance and support to ensure “long-term sustainability, not short-term success,” Brown says.
“The key benefits of becoming a member would be that IMMAF would then become the recognised governing body for MMA,” he adds. “This would better empower us to push for regulation to enable the development of the sport and the enforcement of a duty of care to safeguard all MMA’s participants from the grassroots up to professional levels.
“The goal ofIMMAF is to develop a safe and structured pathway that promotes codes of conduct and practices, providing disciplinary policies and procedures, regulating practices in health, safety and youth involvement, thus providing a duty of care to all.”
One complication is that, like many emerging sports, MMA is seeking a structure that will allow its advocates to speak with one voice.
Aside from the plethora of different promoters worldwide, there are different organisations competing to become the sport’s recognised international administrative body.
“IMMAF and WMMAA have a common goal, and both are striving to become the governing body of MMA, but our organisations differ in policies,” Brown adds.
“IMMAF prides itself on equal opportunities, inclusiveness and democracy with an opportunity to participate in MMA at all levels, whereas our counterpart does not share these values. Surely, for a sport to be mainstream it should be accessible by all.
“The situation will only be resolved with a decision from SportAccord on the merits of each application before MMA can truly move forward and have a successful future as a credible mainstream sport.”