Sports has never been a hotter property, driving networks and attracting huge audiences. And it's not just the National Football League or the NBA that have gained ground. Generally speaking, sports programming has seen a ratings increase of 21 percent over the the last five years. That's 15 percent higher than the television ratings increase across the board according to ESPN Research.
What's interesting is MMA's failure to capitalize on this trend. While we've heard again and again that MMA is the sport of the future, the numbers seem to say otherwise. Sports generally are gaining in viewership in a big way. Yet, the UFC has stayed stagnant, even losing viewers in large numbers since becoming a staple of SPIKE TV in 2005.
In August of that year, the UFC earned a 1.5 rating for their first ever Ultimate Fight Night. Fast forward five and half years and the promotion earned the same 1.5 rating for UFC Fight Night 24. More than five years and zero growth to show for it. Pay per view has grown tremendously for the company in the same time period. But television interest is completely stagnant - with no improvement forthcoming.
TV sports ratings up 21% over past 5 years, TV ratings overall up 6%. #espnupfront
That begs the question: why has the UFC failed to follow traditional mainstream sports during a period of massive television interest and growth? The answer, I think, is in the way fans and viewers see the UFC. If you asked sports fans to name their favorite sports, MMA is unlikely to make many lists. People simply don't view it as a sports property. To many, watching with a group or at a bar, it's an entertainment product.
The UFC, simply put, doesn't look and feel like a sports product. From the complete lack of objective and independent media coverage, to the fawning in house production and announcing, to the cheesy 1990's style presentation, the UFC is light years behind its mainstream counterparts. It has the vibe of a pro wrestling show - and that's how it is viewed by the masses.
The UFC hasn't seen the same growth traditional sports have because it isn't a traditional sport. Watching the coverage of the NBA Playoffs last week, the difference in presentation is stark. There, the games speak for themselves. Even when you are watching a close battle between two super teams, the announcers and the production crew doesn't feel the need to hit you over the head with how amazing and great everything is.
There is little in the way of cheerleading on either ESPN or TNT. The action is carefully monitored, but the audience is allowed to decide for themselves how entertained they should be. It's comfortable and easy. No one is yelling, there is no hard sell. New metal is at a minimum. It's a sport comfortable in its own shoes.
Is this the future for the UFC and mixed martial arts? Will there ever be a time the UFC will be confident enough to let the sport speak for itself, warts and all? When that day comes, it's possible the ratings growth will come with it. Until then, the pro wrestling style promotion has found its audience - and reached its limit. They've been there since day one. It's time to open the door a little wider to let everyone else in too.