UFC enjoyed an absolutely astronomical rise to prominence. In the span of just a few years it went from a fringe, experimental boxing alternative to something approaching a major sport. More recently, however, this growth has slowed somewhat. The initial surge of excitement has subsided, and the novelty has worn off; major stars have recently left the sport, such as Ronda Rousey (to join WWE) and Conor McGregor (who’s retired and is now dealing with personal controversies).
From the outside looking in, it would be easy to forecast some trouble in light of everything just mentioned above. However, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of panic, and few seem to think UFC is in any sort of real trouble. Nevertheless, now seems a perfectly appropriate time to ask where the next surge in growth might come from for an organization that still has all kinds of potential.
There likely isn’t one answer to this question that will prove correct. These are a few possibilities that appear to make some sense though.
UFC is making clear in-roads in China, which may not be “felt” in the U.S., but which could still wind up pumping heaps of new revenue into the sport. In March, for instance, we saw news that UFC had signed a partnership with Qutoutiao, a leading video media distribution service throughout China. Even more recently, we’ve seen speculation about rising MMA fighter Zhang Weili potentially becoming China’s first UFC title winner. The league has less control over Weili’s fate, but these two unrelated stories add up to significant engagement with the Chinese market.
The ability to bet on UFC is not a new thing entirely, but it is shaping up to be something new for a lot of Americans. The U.S. has only recently opened its doors to legal and regulated sports betting, and MMA and UFC are included among numerous sports, leagues, and events for which sportsbooks are showcasing odds and predictions. It’s still unclear exactly how betting businesses are going to evolve in the U.S., but one can certainly see the potential for a great deal of activity in the coming years. More betting activity generally means more attention toward the related sport or league.
ESPN’s (relatively) new streaming service may actually be something of a gamble for UFC, but one way or another it’s set to become the exclusive streaming provider for the league. So far, less than a year into its availability, ESPN+ has proven very useful for subscribers. ESPN was somewhat slick about its unveiling, pitching it as a platform for certain exclusive events but ultimately revealing it to be a service for all sorts of content that isn’t available to non-subscribers. It seems to have worked though, and the service is clearly growing, with UFC set to be part of its surge. It’s conceivable, though not guaranteed, that this could grow the UFC audience.
This is a less concrete idea, but we also shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that some of the aforementioned stars could return to UFC. While it’s not appropriate to compare UFC to WWE in that one is real and the other staged, there is still a vaguely similar performative nature to promotions, rivalries and the like, and we can only imagine the fanfare that might surround a triumphant Rousey return, or a controversial comeback by McGregor. Either star would almost certainly bring about a fresh (though perhaps not prolonged) boost of attention.
Again, UFC does not appear to be in any real trouble; these are not suggestions of things that could save the league. If it’s going to have a renewed surge of growth though, it could come from one of these factors.