In April 2013, UFC President Dana White was ready to turn away the President of the United States.
“We couldn’t seat Obama,” White told Bloomberg.com ahead of UFC 159. “He’d have to sit on my lap.”
That the light heavyweight championship clash between then champ Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen still had tickets available for sale didn’t dissuade White from a hypothetical rebuff of POTUS. The event selling 15,227 tickets for a $2.7 million live gate two years after UFC 111 sold 17,000 for $4 million at the same Prudential Center venue in Newark, New Jersey didn’t matter too much after the fact, either.
In the following weeks, White would try to one-up himself when speaking with Manchester Evening News, claiming the UFC had surpassed soccer’s in popularity in Brazil. The sentiment validated what White had been saying for years: the UFC would overtake soccer as The World’s Sport™.
White was, after all, a soccer skills truther – exposing the global conspiracy to the Calgary Sun a year earlier.
“Can’t stand soccer,” White told the Canadian paper after the PR-savvy move to fist-bump hockey. “It’s the least-talented sport on Earth. There’s a reason three-year-olds can play soccer. When you’re playing a game when the net is that big and the score is 3-1 (and that’s a blowout) are you kidding me?”
You’re goddamn right they couldn’t have fit Obama anywhere but White’s lap at UFC 159. In a world “where everything has been so pussy-fied,” the UFC had finally burned soccer to the ground.
Violence is in our DNA.
Why wouldn’t 2013 Dana White have been so dick-swingingly arrogant, though?
The UFC was still in the honeymoon period of their deal with FOX, and while ratings were down, it was possible it was more of a settling in than a frightening long-term downward trend that would carry into the early months of 2018.
It was a different time.
A simpler time.
A time when you could shoo away talk of bad ratings by blaming The Avengers’ box office power and have people take it seriously.
Truth, in the UFC’s world, has always been flexible. From the bloodsport days of single digit UFC events, where death was sold as a possible winning condition, to the long-festering lie known as “The Zuffa Myth,” fiction is fact.
And White served as the sport’s perfect pitchman. He’d say anything, and any disagreement was to side you as the other. Mild criticism of the narrative could get a media member – or fighter – blackballed.
But all was well.
There was a FOX deal.
There were big enough pay-per-view buyrates.
And most importantly, the UFC was still cool.
White was quick with an expletive in any and every interview and with the kind of bold proclamations that made headlines. Fuck soccer, the UFC was taking over. The NFL? Nobody cares outside of America. Biggest sport in the world by 2020!
This all was good enough to keep the chip on the shoulder of the sport and its fans. Meanwhile, the mainstream was curious about the emerging sport and there was always a Chuck Liddell or Brock Lesnar or Ronda Rousey or Conor McGregor to stick in the middle of your story. A shining star ready for primetime, rising from the collective muck of an ever-bloating roster.
Until there wasn’t.
And when the stars went out, what was left in the darkness was a sport that suddenly seemed far less appealing to the people aging in to its key demographic.
A Sports Business Journal study released last summer showed a three percent decline in “young viewers” from 2006 to 2016 and a jump from 34 to 49 in the median age of television viewers. While the UFC told Bloomberg the median is now actually 39, the fact remains that as the years tick by, young fans are not coming in as fast as they are aging out. This has led to situations like the UFC 221 prelims when the 50+ demographic beat the 18-49 demo by a considerable margin.
The once diverse looks of fighters had faded to dull, decidedly un-cool Reebok “fight kits,” which were already doomed with hardcore fans when the store launched by offering kits for “Giblert Melendez” and “Jacare ‘Ronaldo’ Souza.”
An increasing amount of people in the target demo were becoming socially aware while the UFC couldn’t get away from fighters — and White himself — casually tossing around homophobic and misogynistic slurs and issuing “sorry you were offended” non-apologies.
And White had become an embarrassing uncle, showing up to the holidays ready to talk about how Donald Trump is good for the country and will help fix this damned PC culture. After his appearance at the Republican National Convention, it wasn’t hard to imagine White hosting Paul Ryan and friends at a listening party where the attendees were blissfully unaware they were the machine so desperately needing to be raged against.
The most Gen X of sports was ill prepared for Gen X to begin aging out of relevance.
In fairness, 2015 and 2016 were huge years for the UFC. On the backs of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, the Fertitta brothers parlayed a $2 million 2001 purchase into a more than $4 billion sale to WME-IMG in 2016.
Of course, you could argue the stability of those numbers. And a 2017 without Rousey, Lesnar and McGregor led to a down year on PPV. And there’s that steady decline in the FOX numbers, which have only gotten worse over the past year as the UFC is working to establish a new broadcast rights deal.
Cormier vs. Jones 2 and Bisping vs. St. Pierre were needle movers in 2017. Outside of those two events, the UFC had an awful year on paper.
Still, White took those two events and the UFC’s cut of the McGregor vs. Mayweather boxing match, threw it in front of a funhouse mirror and called 2017 the promotion’s “biggest year ever.”
Reminder: The truth is flexible.
So, is the UFC coming off it’s biggest year ever a scant four years after turning Fantasy Obama away? Is the UFC running away with the title of the world’s most popular sport ahead of White’s 2020 prediction?
Or, are FOX ratings struggling, PPV buyrates down and stars developing with even less regularity than ever? Is the loss of interest driven by a relentlessly un-cool positioning by the power-players in the sport?
Is that why FOX is lobbing $200 million offers for TV rights when WME-IMG was expecting $450+?
“There’s obviously an audience for faceless, skilled violence that carries the UFC branding,” Patrick Wyman wrote in a recent piece at Deadspin. “It’s not a small one, either, but that audience isn’t growing in any meaningful way. Rousey and McGregor could pull viewers from the mainstream, but those viewers didn’t stick around for the rest of what the UFC was offering.”
The problem is the brand.
The UFC established itself as the power player in the industry. Try as they might via developing strong, young talent or utilizing faded stars of the previous era, Bellator hasn’t made tremendous inroads as a viable mainstream alternative in the sport.
The UFC is still the thing. And they’re a thing bogged down by a dated personality.
Tuning in to a UFC broadcast still involves being smacked in the ears by the angsty tunes of the early aughts. And the visuals aren’t much better, though the UFC has attempted some minor upgrades in the graphic departments over the past few years.
And while there’s no better advertisement for the sport than the action in the cage – which is at a higher level than ever before – the UFC constantly snuffs out chances to have gifs of the sport’s beautiful violence go viral with their heavy-handed copyright protections. It is their material, but there’s a time to know that letting gifs survive in the social media ecosystem helps people to remember what makes the sport special.
The brand did not establish itself as being compelling enough to stick around unless the personalities were of a Rousey or McGregor-ish level. And there appears to be no plan for how to capture a larger audience.
In 2018, everyone knows what the UFC is. But fewer and fewer people know why they should be invested.
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