2023: UFC business was booming, fandom not so much

Looking back on 2023 leaves a sense that MMA didn't deliver it's best work, but UFC business was still had a great year.

By: Zane Simon | 2 months

The following piece first appeared on The Bloody Elbow Substack on Sunday, December 31, 2023. Subscribe for early access to more premium pieces and to support your favorite online karate magazine.

It’s hard not to look back on 2023 and feel like the chips are down on MMA as a whole. The latest PFL season failed to deliver anything like a compelling series of finale matchups. Bellator continued putting on reasonable, decent shows in front of a dwindling audience to the point that they finally sold off their assets and are likely to close up shop in the coming year or so.

Then there’s the UFC. Having started 2023 on the right foot—with the long awaited return of Jon Jones and a superfight between Alexander Volkanovski & Islam Makhachev—by the back half of the year it felt like the promotion was doing all it could just to make sure they still had PPV cards to put on, let alone high profile fights to headline them.

Jones got injured, Conor McGregor’s return never materialized, and Israel Adesanya dropped his belt to Sean Strickland and decided to take a long break from competition. There were still highlights, but for the first time since the pandemic, the UFC failed to put 20k+ fans in an arena for any given event (they came close a couple times).

Suffice to say, in terms of high profile fight years, the UFC has had better ones. Financially, however? Business seems better than ever.

UFC is still big business

A combination of increasingly lucrative rights deals, advertising deals, and a Contender Series Heavy labor force keeping costs low has the world’s largest MMA promotion raking in cash from all corners. Throw in their recent WWE merger and increasing opportunities in Saudi Arabia and it seems highly unlikely that the UFC will be any less a cash cow for the foreseeable future.

Whether that will be good for fans hoping that 2024 brings those big fights they missed out on this year, I’m not so sure.

It’s a feeling I’ve had for years now, that the UFC’s ability to create such a broad, unfocused international fan base and strong financial foundation has eroded their interest in actually serving any particular set of fans. Apex shows feel like the truest proof of that theory; events that lack relevance, stakes, or any sort of name value—seemingly produced almost entirely to meet contractual obligations. The quality change when the UFC actually puts a Fight Night card on in front of an audience couldn’t be more stark. When they have fans to serve, they do better.

Gone are the days when it felt like Zuffa was a huge force in Brazil and Canada. Now the UFC is more interested in putting cards in Abu Dhabi in front of a select audience of the absurdly wealthy.

PFL & all the rest

Unfortunately, with the promotion having conquered so much of the global market, everything else MMA is still living deep in its shadow. As the UFC gets more disconnected from putting on the best cards possible, other brands are still finding very little room to breathe. The PFL is trying to make a run at PPV, but the chances they succeed where every other promotion has failed still feel terribly thin. If for no other reason than that fan interest across the sport rises and falls not with the quality of MMA, but with the quality of the UFC.

The less the UFC cares about serving fans, the less likely it feels like another promotion is going to find a fan base rabid for more MMA content. It seems just as likely that people will get bored and move on to other things.

The chaos factor in all this, of course, is the ongoing class action lawsuit—which if successful could truly rattle the UFC’s cage and change everybody’s business structure. Would that be enough to spark real competition with the Endeavor-owned giant? Or would that just be another nail in the coffin of MMA as a culture craze that’s been slowly in decline since 2014?

My hope is for something bigger and better to rise out of all this mess. I’m not entirely convinced by the UFC’s 2024 lineup to date (so far UFC 300 seems like it’s a shadow of past centennial events). But there are still plenty of big fights to make, and curiosity can always carry when hope falters.

There’s little doubt in my mind that next year will be a big one for UFC business, here’s hoping it can be a better one for MMA fans as well.

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About the author
Zane Simon
Zane Simon

Zane Simon is a senior editor, writer, and podcaster for Bloody Elbow. He has worked with the website since 2013, taking on a wide variety of roles. A lifelong combat sports fan, Zane has trained off & on in both boxing and Muay Thai. He currently hosts the long-running MMA Vivisection podcast, which he took over from Nate Wilcox & Dallas Winston in 2015, as well as the 6th Round podcast, started in 2014. Zane is also responsible for developing and maintaining the ‘List of current UFC fighters’ on Bloody Elbow, a resource he originally developed for Wikipedia in 2010.

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