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).
Learning experiences from organisations in business, sports, and entertainment.