SBJ/October 1-7, 2012/Research and Ratings

Shifting interest by age, gender gives MMA a fighting chance

The landscape for fighting sports has changed dramatically in the last five years. There is enough vitality in each of the primary forms — boxing, mixed martial arts and wrestling — to look at fighting sports in a standalone sports context.

When the ESPN Sports Poll began in 1994, there were 12 sports properties of any kind with enough substance to track. One of them was boxing, another was wrestling. While MMA, now dominated by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has been around in various forms for years, it emerged as a considerable sport in the new century and was large enough to be added to the Sports Poll in 2007.

The state of fight sports

Just under half (48 percent) of Americans ages 12 and older are fans of fighting sports, the eighth-largest amount among the 32 sports now tracked. Sixteen percent of Americans have an avid interest in one or more of the three forms of fighting, placing fighting seventh in avid fan base size when compared to the other sports. Seventy-five percent of fighting fans follow two or three types of fighting. And while there is sharper focus at the avid-fan level, 58 percent of fighting fans have avid interest in two or three fighting forms.

But there are several factors that point to MMA as the fighting sport of the future. MMA has the 13th-largest general fan base and eighth-largest avid fan base, which is remarkable at a time when it is hard for any new sport to emerge. MMA’s emergence can be seen in the differences in interest by age, as well (see chart).

FORWARD THINKING

With …

LORENZO FERTITTA

CHAIRMAN AND CEO,
ULTIMATE FIGHTING CHAMPIONSHIP

UFC and MMA seemed poised for significant growth, yet the numbers are down a bit in the last two years. Why the decline, and what is the key to realizing your potential?

"Our sport is built on stars and rivalries, and we have had key injuries to stars, so that’s part of it. We also changed networks and know it takes time for people to get reconnected. That said, we know the key is building relationships between the fans and the fighters and we believe, while social networking helps, the power for us to do that is still television. So we are working to re-establish the familiarity of where to find us on TV and grooming the stars, stories and rivalries for the future while we make the most of what we have now."
That said, MMA has not overtaken boxing just yet. While from 2007-10 more Americans were avid MMA fans than avid boxing fans, boxing regained the lead in 2011-12. And MMA has never had more general fans overall than boxing, though it is coming close.

In addition, MMA’s avid fan base size has declined from an average of 13.3 percent from 2007-10 to 11.7 percent in 2011-12, though the decline should not be considered a surprise. As MMA exploded onto the scene, it garnered a lot of curiosity. Based on the trending of earlier emerging sports like poker, a dip was to be expected as the curious tune in to see what the sport is about and then move on to the next new thing. Fairly early on, we could project that poker would not stay in the mainstream of interest because of the lack of sustained avid interest. Why? It was never really about relationship; it was about learning how to play poker. Once a person knew how to play an 8-5 off-suit, there wasn’t as much value in watching.

The key to UFC avoiding the post-curiosity decline is continuing to develop the path and progression of the fighters in the sport. The more fans know who they are and how they got there, the more likely they are to form a bond with one or more fighters, and that is the key to building a sustained fan base.

FUTURE FIVE

For the first time, two issues below the top five accounted for 25 percent of the first-place votes, suggesting a polarity on those two issues — emerging technology in sports and trends in television ratings for sporting events — as being most important for some but not important enough to the rest to get them into the top five.

Rank (Pvs) Issue Score (% of first-place votes)
1 (1) State of U.S. economy 137 (47)
2 (2) Ability of middle-income American families to spend money on sports 124 (18)
3 (4) Fans preferring to watch on TV rather than attend games or events 107 (0)
4 (3) How financial pressure companies feel will affect sports investments
102 (6)
5 (NR) Competition for sports sponsorship dollars from technology and entertainment
99 (0)

NR: Not ranked
For the first time, two issues below the top five accounted for 25 percent of the first-place votes, suggesting a polarity on those two issues — emerging technology in sports and trends in television ratings for sporting events — as being most important for some but not important enough to the rest to get them into the top five.


Women are coming to fight

Another key factor, possibly the key factor, in a freshening fighting audience is the growth in avid interest by women. From 2002 to 2012, interest in boxing is up for women of all ages. And avid interest in MMA is stronger for women 12-54 than for men 55 and older. Clearly the presence of women boxers and MMA fighters is leading this interest. These numbers (see chart) are substantial and, if sustained, demand a closer look at the overall sports landscape from a woman’s perspective.

Women have been fighting for respect in sports for decades, even in the mainstream sports, and aren’t fully accepted. Yet somehow, quietly, women have entered the most male of sports and have taken hold without many questions asked. This may be a tipping point, a time when we recognize athletes who also happen to be women.

MMA and the future

It’s too early to say MMA will overtake fighting and the dominant role boxing has had for decades, but the trends are right for sustained presence for MMA. However, it faces the same challenges boxing has had for decades in a sport that’s only as strong as the most compelling match-up in the next fight. UFC’s overwhelming brand dominance in MMA should be a big plus.

Rich Luker (rich@lukerco.com) is the founder of Luker on Trends and the ESPN Sports Poll.

Percentage of Americans, by age and gender, who are fans or avid fans of boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts. Data for MMA is for 2012 only.

BOXING
Fans M 12-17 M 18-34 M 35-54 M 55+ F 12-17 F 18-34 F 35-54 F 55+
2002 67.5 67.5 52.8 40.2 42.4 33.5 19.7 8.5
2012 70.1 66.6 56.0 43.4 43.5 41.2 28.1 15.7
 
AVIDS M 12-17 M 18-34 M 35-54 M 55+ F 12-17 F 18-34 F 35-54 F 55+
2002 25.1 23.8 15.2 9.8 5.9 7.1 3.7 1.3
2012 24.7 27.9 17.4 10.8 13.8 10.1 6.7 2.0
 
WRESTLING
Fans M 12-17 M 18-34 M 35-54 M 55+ F 12-17 F 18-34 F 35-54 F 55+
2002 59.5 46.0 29.1 16.7 42.2 27.7 15.9 9.1
2012 40.9 35.6 31.7 20.8 35.9 24.6 16.4 10.0
 
AVIDS M 12-17 M 18-34 M 35-54 M 55+ F 12-17 F 18-34 F 35-54 F 55+
2002 24.5 18.0 7.6 3.7 12.9 9.5 5.1 2.4
2012 10.7 10.8 10.7 5.1 5.7 5.5 3.3 1.5
 
MIXED MARTIAL ARTS
Fans M 12-17 M 18-34 M 35-54 M 55+ F 12-17 F 18-34 F 35-54 F 55+
2012 65.6 67.4 48.7 27.5 52.5 44.0 27.6 15.0
 
AVIDS M 12-17 M 18-34 M 35-54 M 55+ F 12-17 F 18-34 F 35-54 F 55+
2012 29.2 28.6 14.9 5.0 12.0 11.5 5.7 2.3

Source: Luker on Trends - ESPN Sports Poll
2002 data: 4,200-12,000 interviews throughout 2002 (margin of error +/- 2%)
2012 data: 5,146 interviews January-July, 2012 (margin of error +/- 2%)

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