Stephen Thompson fights Darren Till at UFC Fight Night Liverpool Echo Arena. May 2018.
The UFC has grown from strength to strength in recent years and following its recent deal with ESPN, UFC President Dana White has claimed a value for the organisation of $7 billion. With our Entrepreneurship project starting in the coming months I have started to take great interest in what it is that makes businesses inimitable. So how do you explain the success of the UFC? It’s a brutal sport involving two combatants who try to physically inflict as much damage as is possible on their adversary to the point of submission or knock out or eventual points decision. The reason for its success is simple: People who watch it have a blood lust, look at history; they always have done, and they always will. Right?
Wrong. While the blood lust argument is a strong one, it over simplifies a far more complex narrative. There are plenty of sports that can satisfy a blood lust, Boxing (an Olympic sport), NFL (American Football), NRL (Australian Rugby League), Rugby Union (a thug’s game played by gentlemen) and NHL (ice hockey). I find it interesting that none of these sports with the exception of boxing (which I will argue is in decline later) have the potential to grow to the global level of soccer, in contrast to the potential for the UFC. I am going to explore why I think UFC is inimitable and why it can achieve the above.
Let’s start off by looking at the similarities between soccer and UFC: the rules are dead simple; you can watch and understand how the sport works instantly; there are no social barriers preventing participation; neither require large amounts of specialist kit; and both can take place in some form pretty much anywhere, any place in the world. Try applying all of those similarities to any of the other sports above with the exception of boxing – more on boxing later.
East meets west, sport or art? People have always enjoyed a fight all over the world throughout history and for many reasons – some of them biological. This was discussed in book Why We Fight, that I recently read and would recommend (incidentally written by Oxford University Alum Mike Martin). The beauty of MMAs is in its flexibility in incorporating a whole range of fighting styles taken from cultures all around the world. Is there another sport other than soccer that achieves this to the same level? These different styles are martial arts in their own rights and MMA successfully moulds and blends them together to create a diverse mix. This creates a tactical diversity and complexity that is captivating to watch, something well beyond the simplicity of a bloodlust. On the subject of diversity, the UFC has to be the most ethnically diverse sport in the world. All races, religions colours and creeds are to be found battling it out in the octagon. Women play a leading role in UFC that is yet to be seen in any other sports organisation with women taking centre stage as main events. Again, tell me any other sport that has managed this? Athletes like Rose Namajunas as well a highly skilled martial artist, an is an amazing strong female role model who the UFC will be sure to promote and foster.
The three 5-minute rounds fight format creates pressure and excitement, far more than in boxing which is constrained by its archaic past where athletes can go for twelve 3-minute rounds. For boxing purists this can be the attritional beauty of the sport, but for the millennial, this is a swipe left. We can agree that the success of the UFC cannot be attributed to as single factor but its clever formatting and ability to adapt and mould to new technologies perhaps provides one of the reasons for its rapid growth. From a market perspective, the format is made for the current devices of choice mobile phones and is great at providing the best marketable content that can be monetised with brand affiliation.
Just like any contact sport there are risks for the athletes and the organisation must be astute in how it manages its athlete welfare moving forward. There have and will continue to be challenges with doping scandals (highlighted by athlete Michael Bisbing) much like in other sports and the long-term implications of the damage that athletes sustain will make for interesting viewing as the sport in its current format is still in a nascent phase. One thing that is for sure is that those who compete in UFC are certainly more aware of the visible risks and implications of their competition than has been the case in other sports like NFL or rugby who have come in for criticism following the visionary work on CTE of people like Bennet Omalu. In an encounter with Omalu at the Union, we spoke about concussion in rugby when he abruptly cut me off telling me that “concussion is just another word to describe brain damage.” The implications of this are profound for any athlete involved in contact sports but the transparency of the UFC in dealing with welfare issues gives it an honest advantage in comparison to other sports.
With UFC Hall of Fame fighter Michael Bisbing who has highlighted doping issues in the sport (London, March 2018) and with Bennet Omalu who has raised awareness of CTE in the NFL (Oxford, November 2018).
I think that the UFC will continue to grow, and one thing to me is clear: that it isn’t just a blood lust that makes the UFC inimitable, but a host of complex and unique parts that make it difficult to emulate. It’s closing in on a monopoly of sorts and has the ability to rival soccer as a dominant force. The one area of sports I haven’t discussed that will perhaps take out all of the above sports are Esports. While Esports are taking over the world at a startling rate they aren’t something that interest me a great deal (for now at least).
Why Fewer Games can Equate to More Money for Rugby
With in season breaks being introduced into professional rugby I thought I’d share why this can actually be a good thing for the game and why fewer games can have a positive financial impact in the long term.
The reasons to enforce a break are obvious for the players; the limp I currently walk with is testament to this. While I joke about my hip being damaged from “over use” in my younger years, I don’t often mention the punishing premiership schedule with additional knockout games and representative rugby - the cause. Premature arthritis is not something normal for a 33 year old to suffer from so I don’t need convincing on the player lead argument.
What interests me is the product that premier rugby are selling and its quality. Let’s think about it logically and simply: in today’s world, what is it the most important and sought after commodity? Peoples attention. How do you capture and monetise peoples attention? Through creating great content. Put simply, great rugby enables great content which leads to more money for the clubs and premier rugby that can go back into the sport.
In business and life, an over abundance of anything can create a lull in demand. A higher volume of games won’t help anyone. Rugby is not the dominant cultural sport in the UK, a place taken by football. To capture new customers as well as retaining the current ones, you need the best product. While the standard of professional rugby in England improves year on year, I still think the game could be better. More games, more worn pitches/poorer playing conditions, tired players all lead to a product that’s not reaching its full potential.
As a premiership club, how should you offer value to your supporters? In my opinion with a greater product, not with a higher volume of games. Rugby needs to realise that it is operating in a market where the goal is capturing attention and it is now in the entertainment business. With fewer games, clubs can spend more time concentrating on game promotion and hype and getting bums on seats to create packed out stadiums, rather being consumed by the relentless grind of matches. More fans, more fanfare equals greater pressure which creates a greater spectacle that can be captured as content.
There are many things that need to occur for my argument outlined above to work and there are obvious complexities that I have not addressed. I just think that it’s a different way of framing the argument and fewer games should be seen as an opportunity rather than a disappointment for clubs to spend time improving the product of rugby whilst realising the financial benefit.
I had the pleasure of joining coaches, listening and learning from some great minds in the worlds of rugby, leadership and management. Plaisir du mouvement translates into English as 'the pleasure of movement' and is a rugby coaching philosophy developed by French coaching icon Pierre Villepreux. Villepreux developed and produced his philosophy while producing multiple French international rugby players from just one school in the process. He successfully coached Toulouse and the French National team.
What strikes me about his philosophy is the beauty of its simplicity, in attacking space and reacting to player movement. He focusses on taking pleasure from the game and "maintaining disorder when you create it in attack". It is an unusual way of doing things in comparison to traditional English coaching and encourages intuitive learning. The implementation of this type of play requires time, and in my opinion collective buy in and trust from all the players. It is a process of encouragement and trial and error where skill development takes place at its own pace. This is where the reality of short-term results based professionalism kicks in. The current coaching climate in professional rugby does not allow for much time, as results are mostly what matter. This means that the implementation of this philosophy requires the patience and continuity of players that few owners have.
The highly respected former Oxford University Coach Lyn Evans, (a disciple of Villepreux), showcased some of his ball handling warm up drills and told of the influence that basketball had on some handling work, creating interference and making the player think. We also had the privilege of listening to Bob Reeves who is both Director of the Foundation for Leadership Through Sport and President of the RFU. He spoke about leadership and the responsibility of coaches to develop leaders throughout their teams. Bob also talked about the power of empowering others to make decisions which is something that resonates with my own experience. When as a group of players, you have created the rules, they are a lot harder to break!
I had a fantastic time and I'd like to thank Bob, Lyn and Pierre for their time and also extend my thanks to Joe Winpenney at Oxford University Rugby Football Club for arranging the conference, which was a complete success.
With Pierre Villepreux
I was fortunate enough to visit the Quest Diagnostics Training Centre, home of the New York Giants on a recent trip. It was great to improve my understanding of a high performance environment. I managed to speak with several of the performance staff, in strength and conditioning, statistical analysis and video analysis. It was fantastic to gain a better in-depth appreciation of the level of detail that goes into the preparation of an NFL team. I'd like to thank Jim Phelan the guys at the Giants for being so accommodating and generous with their time.
Learning experiences from organisations in business, sports, and entertainment.