MMA is without a doubt a sport which has continued to grow ever since it made its first appearance on pay-per-view television in 1993. The UFC is the 800-pound gorilla of the hurt game, but despite the promotion’s success and continued dedication to delivering more content in a variety of ways, many of them groundbreaking, there still seems to be a level which the organization has yet to achieve. It has yet to gain recognition alongside the big three—the NFL, MLB and the NBA—in North America.

A while back, we took a look at how the UFC has done well since its landmark deal with Fox, but not as well as some might have hoped. We asked the question “Is broadcast television the way to reach the mainstream?”

Truthfully, it is a question that is hard to answer at this time. However, this is a business whose core revenue is generated by pay-per-view sales and who, when push comes to shove, has to take a back seat to other sports that it may conflict with. As such, it seems almost painfully obvious that if the UFC is going to achieve exposure to a wider audience, then it would have to continue making the same type of bold moves as it has made before.

The launch of the UFC Fight Pass digital subscription service had a rough start, but it highlights another way the promotion is trying to seek out any advantage or opportunity it can find to get fans access to UFC and associated fight content. Unlike the big three, the UFC does not have franchises all over the continent where fans can continually attend games or see them weekly on television during the season. When it comes to pay-per-view buys, the UFC is the best in the business. With the exception of two marquee boxers, no one can deliver the kind of numbers that the UFC pulls in. When it comes to television ratings, no other fight promotion comes even close, and compared to TV as a whole, the UFC does pretty well, too.

Of course, when you compare the UFC’s ratings to the NFL, the numbers can seem disappointing at first. This is why mainstream is more about total exposure than just broadcast exposure. Even though Monday Night Football on ESPN is the most watched show on cable, I guarantee more people know the identity of the cast of the Keeping Up With the Kardashians reality series.

So, what else goes into breaking through? UFC President Dana White repeatedly says that his competition isn’t companies like Bellator. Instead, he points to the big three. But what about the big five, when you include the NHL and MLS? Does the UFC match up well and deserve to be declared a part of a big six, or has the promotion already surpassed some of the sports on that list? Should it unseat the NHL or MLS as a part of the big five? This is where we must compare the UFC’s television revenue, estimated pay-per-view revenue, attendance and event schedule to see if the numbers match the hope.

Ratings are the gold standard to determine television success. When it comes to sports, there is often a guaranteed source of revenue for the league or franchise that the broadcaster pays for the rights to the content, regardless of ratings. Basically media company “A” pays sports league “B” so many millions of dollars for the broadcast rights to franchise “C” with the hope that they in turn will be able to sell enough advertising to not only cover the costs but actually make a profit. If the risk proves to be fruitful, then everyone wins. If it is not, then the league wins in the short term, but it loses major ground when it comes time to make a new deal or renegotiate the current one.

The NFL takes the cake at $5 billion in television revenue alone. MLB works a little differently, but it comes in at a distant second at $1.5 billion. The NBA is at a respectable third place at just under $1 billion, and the NHL comes it at $600 million. MLS is in a distant fifth at $30 million. The UFC’s deal with Fox is estimated be in the $90-100 million a year range. If television revenue were the only benchmark, then that number alone would place the UFC above MLS. When you take into account how many teams are in the NHL and how many games those teams play, you can make a strong argument that the UFC is more valuable on a pound-for-pound basis, and therefore more successful.

The other line we can measure is attendance. Obviously, large leagues with multiple franchises have the advantage in total attendance, but average attendance is the key to showing continuous success. Once again, the NFL and MLB take first and second place, with 68,000 and 30,000 respectively. Both these sports also play in stadiums which can almost all hold over 50,000 people, so this should come as no surprise. The NBA and NHL, however, are where it gets interesting, as these are the types of venues which are more commonly used by the UFC. The two leagues come in at a virtual tie for No. 4 with average attendance in the range of 17,000-18,000. Surprisingly, MLS takes it at No. 3 with over 18,000 average in attendance last year. This, however, is a deceptive number, given that the MLS ticket prices tend to be feeble when compared to the other leagues and they play in large stadiums usually shared by NFL teams. Based on average attendance alone, the UFC would be a distant sixth with 11,670 across 32 events in 2013 (UFC Fight for the Troops was not factored in). When you take into account the number of events which take place in 10,000-seat arenas, all of which are usually at capacity, it’s fair to say the capacity percentage of the UFC is probably among the top three.

Without a doubt the UFC fails in total events per year, but this is an area the promotion makes up for by being a year-round sport. In 2013, the UFC was able to put on 33 shows with at least two in every month. Most other sports couldn’t keep up with a year-round demand even if they wanted to, because the tax on athletes’ bodies would be too much, aside from the possibility of diminishing returns in ratings from having to compete with each other throughout the entire season. Of those 33 events the UFC televised, there were 13 pay-per-views (which is source of revenue none of the other leagues enjoy), four were broadcast on Fox and the remaining 16 aired on cable television. This number will continue to grow to the point that there is an UFC event almost every week in the not-so-distant future, and with the advent of Fight Pass, you can add one more method of delivery to the equation.

Pay-per-view and Fight Pass add the most interesting element to the conversation. There was once a time when all UFC cards were on pay-per-view. Then, the organization started putting on a few free shows a year. Then, about half were pay-per-view, and then, for 2013, the number became less than half. By the end of 2014, it could be less than a third. This isn’t because the UFC’s pay-per-view business is slowing down, as some have suggested, but because the promotion continues to diversify its mechanisms of content delivery. Between Fox, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, pay-per-view and now Fight Pass, the more balance, the better.

The NFL, of all places, would love nothing more than to get into the pay-per-view business. Unfortunately, the anti-trust exemptions the league receives from federal government are partially contingent on the league not having a pay-per-view tier to its business model. Things like NFL Sunday Ticket allow customers to watch games not available locally or via a nationally broadcast, and Game Rewind lets fans watch the replays of every regular season game. Sure, the NFL has Game Pass, which allows fans to stream games live, but it’s only available if you’re outside the United States, which is a market the NFL will have a hard time penetrating in a big way as it is.

Total revenue for the NFL is estimated at $11 billion, with MLB at $7 billion, the NBA at $5 billion, the NHL at $3.3 billion and MLS in a distant yet respectable fifth place at half a billion dollars. It would be difficult for us to properly estimate the UFC’s total revenue, but based on estimated television and pay-per-view revenue alone, using $50 as the average cost of a pay-per-view, the UFC’s generated revenue would be at roughly $400 million dollars. (Pay-per-view numbers were calculated based on the information available at which were provided through Dave Meltzer of Wrestling Observer Newsletter and do not reflect sources of revenue from international broadcasting rights.)

If you were to also factor in the disclosed gate of over $100 million, advertising revenue and merchandise sales, then the UFC would easily surpass MLS to enter the big five. It is worth noting that pay-per-view distributors, such as cable and satellite companies, usually take a sizable percentage of each buy—usually around half, depending on the deal the promoter and distributor have. Of course, every league has to share the wealth from all sources of revenue, so this isn’t new. It’s just unique, because the UFC is the only one with a sizable portion of revenue from pay-per-view (and the only ones with pay-per-view at all). Regardless, the UFC has a long way to go before it can surpass hockey and start chomping at the bit of the big three.

One thing is certain, though: the UFC is a different animal. It is a combat sport, like boxing, but is able to keep all its fighters under one banner and brand, like the WWE or NASCAR. Yet, it operates more like a franchise within a sport as a whole in some ways, like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Lakers. But when people talk about fighting, they don’t say “MMA,” they say “UFC,” much like how when people talk about pro football, they say “the NFL,” or in golf, they’re referring to “the PGA.” So, while it might not be fair to compare the UFC to the major sports leagues in North America, the fact that the promotion is even able to come close in some areas means that it’s not a matter of if the UFC will become mainstream, but when…and how long it will take for everyone else to realize this fact. And that’s the bottom line.

  • bob

    Great read, thanks, agreed