Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Why UFC Is Winning

White On Whiter Crime
Last Saturday night, one of the regulars in my poker game hosted his own tournament in a brand-new basement space, and invited me over. The night at the tables went well, but that's not really the point. And yes, this will get back to marketing and advertising soon enough. Anyway...

My man has a fine new big screen TV, and had also splurged on the Ultimate Fighting Championship pay per view. I've been moderately familiar with the sport from just general cultural awareness, but had never seen an event up close. And while I'm long past the event horizon for becoming a fan, it's clear from just one viewing as to why the sport has made such inroads in certain demographics. Let's get into it.

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1) It delivers what it promises.

In 11 fights, there were definitive winners (knock out or submission) in six events, with clear decisions (unanimous judging) in four others. If what works for you in sports is a clear winner and a clear loser, there really isn't anything more definitive than the end of an average MMA contest.

2) There's no "slow" play.

There doesn't seem to be such a thing as pointing your opponent to defeat, a la Floyd Mayweather, in a long and boring event where only the most discerning eye seems to acquire any worth from the contest. With so many offensive disciplines on the table, defense in UFC seems to be a case of ending your opponent's efforts before they end yours. Waiting them out, not so much. Which makes for a far more compelling spectacle.

3) There's a set schedule.

UFC events are numbered for a reason, and that reason is that the people who are watching this one seem absolutely locked into watching the next one. Which will be in three weeks, and the one after that is already on the calendar as well. Unlike boxing, where fans have to sometimes wait for years to see the fight they want, UFC fans know when their next fix is coming, and can plan accordingly.

4) It's pretty much impossible to not watch.

As noted above, I'm not a fight guy. I was in the room to play poker. But when the fight was live, the game was not, because that's just the nature of two people who might, well, fundamentally alter the course of the life of the other, in front of you. There's a reason why this sort of thing goes back eons, and why the competitors who seem more skilled at drawing the ire of the crowd get even more attention than anyone else. You can call it a train wreck if you like, but you're still watching.

5) There's no learning curve to new viewers.

Football, basketball, baseball: all have fairly arcane rules that can cause a new viewer to, well, ruin it for experts in the room by asking basic questions. As advanced mathematics come into play for player evaluations, the barrier to entry increases, because no one wants to explain all of that as well. UFC has more strategy and statistics than a casual observer might imagine, but you really don't need to know any of them to understand what's going on. Two people are trying to do massive and sudden violence to each other. You can ignore the statistics if you like.

6) It's (cheerfully) niche and exclusionary.

If you find this kind of sport to be morally repugnant, or the human equivalent of cockfighting, or something that just shows the worst of human behavior glorified and made fiscally lucrative... well, you aren't going to be watching it. Ever. Which means that the people who are watching it don't ever have to hear from you, as football fans have to during the run-up to the Super Bowl, or baseball fans have to with people who think their game is dull during the World Series, or basketball fans, or hockey fans, or soccer fans, and so on, and so on. There's big money in MMA (UFC is said to be worth $2 billion now, or 100X what it sold for in 2001), and yet it still has the feel of a shared secret, without watered down fantasy league fans or office pools.

7) It's going to get bigger, and probably better, with international scalability.

Like big special effects movies, you don't have to show massive artistic worth to make this product cross borders (or, likely, even a translation). There's a reason why boxers used to be worldwide celebrities. MMA fighters may not have the same level of appeal or career length, but so long as the events come out routinely and avoid high impropriety, there's no reason whatsoever to think the top of the wave is in sight.

Is there a gating element on the horizon? Well, sure. The nature of the sport is primal and exclusionary, and at some point, a fatality might occur in a high visibility event. (Some Web research tells me that there have been a handful so far in lesser leagues, but so far, the incidents have been less than boxing, which isn't exactly the highest of praise.) That potential might keep mainstream advertising away, though there's certainly a lot of big brands already on the telecast. The history of combat sports is one of inevitable corruption, because gamblers only need to get to one person to create fraud. That's probably going to happen here, if it hasn't already.

But in terms of what I saw in the room? Mainstream sports wish they had this level of attachment from their audiences. Which means it's also a DVR-free experience, and a high value marketing and advertising opportunity for targeted demographics.

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