According to research from a few years ago, the MMA (mixed martial arts) is the third most popular sport in the world, trailing behind soccer and basketball. It’s also the world’s fastest-growing sport, a fact that suggests that MMA can get at the very top of the most popular sports on Earth by the end of the decade.
One of the main reasons for the popularity of the sport is that it’s been around since always. Basketball was invented in 1891, baseball was born in 1869, and football saw its first game in 1869. Mixed martial arts, however, is a sport that’s been around since time immemorial, with its predecessor pankration being a regular feature in the Ancient Olympic Games.
Still, in the modern era, the rise of the sport is directly related to the growing popularity of the UFC, the dominant promoter of mixed martial arts.
What Makes the UFC So Popular?
The Ultimate Fighting Championship a.k.a. UFC is the biggest promoter company in the MMA. This organization that started its journey in the early 1990s is now reportedly worth over 7 billion dollars. If the figure is true, that makes the UFC one of the most valuable brands in the world.
The company signed a deal with Disney in 2019, which is expected to give a big boost to the popularity of the promotion. In turn, the value of this brand is bound to go up as well.
The UFC Pay-Per-View (PPV) System
The UFC’s business model revolves around the pay-per-view (PPV) system. How it works is that in order to be able to watch live broadcasts of UFC fights, you need to pay. Due to the nature of the PPV scheme, different UFC events have different financial success.
Sometimes, the difference in the number of PPV buys can be drastic. For instance, the 2018 fight between two MMA superstars Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor had 2,400,000 PPV buys, much more than any other fight in the history of this promotion.
The second-most successful UFC bout in terms of PPV buys is Nate Diaz vs Conor McGregor 2 from 2016, which garnered 1,600,000 buys. Still, even that number is much, much higher than the viewership figures of other MMA promotions, such as Bellator MMA and Cage Warriors.
The reason why that is the case is pretty obvious – the crème de la crème of mixed martial arts is competing in the UFC. Some of the greatest MMA fighters of all times are fighting under the banner of the UFC and many of them have become true celebrities outside the Octagon as well.
MMA in Pop Culture
Proof of this sport’s rising popularity is its presence on social media. The most popular MMA fighter is Connor McGregor who has north of 35 million followers on Instagram. When compared to the most popular athletes on social media, he’s not even in the top 10, but his followership is increasing rapidly.
One of the reasons for that is McGregor’s activity outside the Octagon – his fans just love checking out on what he’s been up to. It’s pretty much the same situation when it comes to other MMA stars, many of which have become real mainstream celebrities.
Paige VanZant, for instance, appeared in a popular TV show Dancing with the Stars. VanZant’s nemesis Ronda Rousey starred in some blockbuster movies including Furious 7, The Expendables 3, and others. Furthermore, former UFC fighter James Wilks had a leading role in the Netflix documentary The Game Changers (2018).
MMA fighters are often invited as guests in talk shows on TV and radio alike. Joe Rogan, who is a passionate fan of the sport, often does interviews mixed martial artists in his podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, with each show having millions of views on YouTube.
Another thing that’s been rising the public interest in the sport is the fact that MMA is loved by big-name politicians. The President of Russia Vladimir Putin, who has a black belt in judo, is famous for being very appreciative of the sport. The same goes for the US President Donald Trump, who’s been seen attending UFC events a number of times.
Popularity of MMA in the United States
Traditionally, football is the most popular sport in the United States. Even though the popularity of mixed martial arts is rising, the sport is still trailing behind America’s favorite sport. But it’s not only football, the MMA is trailing behind basketball, baseball, hockey and other popular US sports.
Still, the tide might turn now that the ban on sports betting has been lifted. The reason is simple, there are much more betting opportunities in MMA than in many other popular sports, football included.
For instance, an NFL season lasts only for a couple of months. The regular season usually starts in September and finishes before the New Year’s Eve. The playoffs are played in January, with the Super Bowl being played usually in early February.
The UFC, on the other hand, has events happening throughout the year, almost every weekend. Every UFF event has several fights in the main card plus a few additional preliminaries.
The Lure of MMA Betting Odds
Another reason why bettors have started falling in love with this sport is the fact that MMA odds are often very attractive, especially when it comes to betting on underdogs. To explain why this is the case, let’s make another comparison with the NFL.
In football, a team is made up of 45 players, so if one of them has a bad day, there are plenty of others to cover for him. Inside the Octagon, MMA fighters rely only on themselves. It takes only a lucky punch for the underdog to knock-out the favorite.
Great news for bettors who love backing underdogs is that upsets happen often in this sport. The same applies to regular sports fans – no one likes a boring sport in which surprises don’t happen.
You must agree that the MMA is far from being a boring sport. Actually, it’s just the opposite. Just think of the time when we saw Diaz finishing McGregor with a rear-naked choke or when Joanna Jedrzejczyk got her face disfigured by Weili Zhang.
What to Expect From MMA in the Future?
George Orwell famously said that “sport is war minus the shooting”. The MMA seems like a sport that’s as close to combat as possible. We must all agree that war is bad, but fighting in the ring is not. In fact, this sport might hold the key to helping people deal with their primordial urges. Rather than fighting on the streets, they can fight inside the octagon.
Whether you think this sport is noble or not is up for debate, but one thing is certain – MMA fights are fun to watch. And they’re likely to get even more exciting in the future as the number of fighters increases.
As a result, the sport is bound to garner even larger followership in the future. Can it surpass other sports and become the most popular sport in the world? It’s hard to say, but the MMA definitely has the potential for something like that.