Many sports have felt the enormous difference of hosting events which would normally be full of eager fans supporting their heroes, looking for betting tips and waiting to see a match between two of the best players, teams or fighters.
During the last year with the Coronavirus pandemic, a lack of fans has led to quiet stadiums around the world as sporting professionals take to their pitches and their courtside positions. However, the bosses behind the sports still have to keep the fans entertained, so we take a look at the UFC approach.
Initially, the UFC president Dana White was opting not to run fights without crowds, deeming it not enough of an attraction to pull in a virtual audience. However, with the pandemic lasting much longer than anyone was really prepared for, a change of mind eventually came through.
At the beginning, with travel arrangements seriously hampering preparations for fighters, it took some time to reach past initial concerns with various governments. Many countries made exceptions for professional sportspeople to be able to travel to play their matches and compete. The proviso being that in order to reduce virus transmission, they would stay in ‘bubbles’ where they would not interact with the outside world.
Then a surprising thing happened: the UFC streaming hits started to go right up, while other sports seemed to find their fans becoming fatigued of streaming. The numbers taken from last summer indicate that the TV and streaming ratings coming in actually provided a boost for the sport. New interest was generated in people who would never normally tune in to UFC fights.
With the UFC at this stage able to beat ratings for games of basketball featuring leading stars such as LeBron James, and also for coverage of the likes of golf and baseball, it showed the appetite for combat sports such as UFC may just be beginning.
Part of the interesting aspect around what White and the UFC management team did to sustain these ratings was to decide to push not their main fighters, but the undercards in various instances, to clear success. The idea was that if they kept on promoting up and coming fighters rather than just established names who people were already familiar with, they would demonstrate the broader appeal of UFC with a new generation of fans who could fall in love with a new generation of fighters.
As these fighters found themselves getting increased exposure, the streaming numbers received boosts each time those names would pop up on the cards after a thrilling fight last time around. That indicated that fans streaming and watching on cable television for the likes of ESPN wanted to see how their new heroes were doing.
Treating an aspect of the UFC as a novelty to most people makes sense. Televised soccer and basketball have been around for decades, and people are used to seeing those players. They are household names, and the average person on the street who you could ask would probably know of the biggest players even if they did not watch the games. The ubiquity of the players on the news channels, the back pages of the newspapers and all over social media every time they make a big play means they get recognition in the wider world outside sports.
The heads behind UFC decided to follow a similar pattern but quickly realized they needed to build up a much bigger roster of recognized stars before they would be able to compete in the streaming stakes. That also provided a serious boost for those looking for some betting tips since there were more fights happening and they all had a bigger ability to get coverage for watching, while the stats were also boosted since information on each fighter became easier to get hold of.
Another smart aspect is that they did not decide to cut the season in the summer when most other big sports such as basketball, football, soccer and baseball take their offseason break. Instead, the fights came thick and fast and pretty much weekly at times to ensure there could even be blanket coverage at some points since that could be one of the few big sporting events of the entire weekend.
At that stage, the UFC could get what it wanted - to be discussed at length and in short clips that were popping up all over social media. When classy short section videos of a clinical knockout or an expert move get shared from sports channels with the rights, it does the combination trick of getting people talking about a highly-talked about moment from the big sporting event from the weekend. It also benefits the TV and network streaming channels hosting the fights, since they get their name out there too.
This ability to provide moments that people really remember - and it no longer needs to be the case that a Conor McGregor or a Khabib Nurmagomedov needs to be in the ring to get people noticing them - and since there are new stars coming up that can make a big card on their own since they had this original push for promotion, it has really become possible to maintain such momentum.
At some point in the near future, fans are being welcomed back into the stadiums to watch their heroes once more. It is likely to be big news for the UFC just like it will be for so many other sports. Now, though, with this increased following, the hype can be generated just as easily by those watching at home as it can be by the people who have their tickets to watch a high-quality fight inside the Octagon.
If the UFC management keep things rolling as they are currently, there seems no reason that they cannot continue this conversion of interested people into fans of the sport and continue to take streaming views away from some of the sports that have been around for such a long time.