A UFC match in progress. (Source: UFC/Facebook)

Instead of Killing Boxing, the UFC Plans to Use It As a Lifeline

(Bloomberg) -- Boxing is dead. Of course, this is hardly news to anyone. The public has heard the same death knell for years. According to boxing historian Patrick Connor, the phrase was first uttered in 1899 by William Brady, the manager for heavyweight champion James Jefferies.  

By 1961, Jack Dempsey blew out the candles on his 66th birthday, lamenting, “Without fresh talent, boxing is dying.” Even as the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston headed to Lewiston, Maine, in 1965, a bewildered Rocky Marciano told the press, “I don’t care who sees what on TV. Boxing is dead.” The chorus grew after Mike Tyson retired in 2005. And it was déjà vu all over again in 2017 after Floyd Mayweather Jr. walked away as boxing’s first minted billion-dollar earner against Conor McGregor. 

The newest cause of boxing’s death? The UFC. The mixed martial art’s exploding popularity, we hear, is hammering yet another nail into boxing’s coffin. Founded in 1993, the league has flourished since its inception, and in 2016 it was bought by WME-IMG (now Endeavor) for $4.2 billion.

Instead of Killing Boxing, the UFC Plans to Use It As a Lifeline

Dana White, the company’s perpetually warring 48-year-old president, has boasted that the UFC’s popularity could eclipse not just boxing, but also the global popularity of the NFL. (The NFL stood to make $14 billion in 2017.) Thomas Gerbasi, the UFC’s editorial director since 2005, is optimistic. “We’re rolling long,” he says. “Look at Dana’s track record. He’s not a guy who says something and it doesn’t happen. He’s a man of his word, and the results speak for themselves.”

But when White announced last year, fresh off the successful Mayweather-McGregor fight, that the UFC would be getting into boxing, it confirmed what many insiders already knew: Without fresh talent, the UFC would be dying, not boxing.

Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times and one of boxing’s elder statesmen, says, “WME buying the UFC for $4.2 billion is starting to look like Time Warner’s decision to merge with AOL.” Kurt Emhoff, a sports attorney at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, is more blunt: “The worst-case scenario is that they just bought Myspace.” 

Well Below Projections

Contrary to public perception, boxing gets consistently higher ratings than the UFC and attracts more viewers in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic. Almost 2 million tuned in to watch boxing’s super featherweight championship broadcast on ESPN in December, headlined by Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux, at Madison Square Garden. It was the second-highest audience for boxing on basic cable since 2012 and more than twice that of the UFC’s competing telecast on FS1, which drew 870,000 viewers.

After the championship, Bob Arum told reporters, “Boxing is not an old man’s sport. Our demographics are young. We’ve been up against [the UFC] three times on a level playing field, and when [boxing’s] free, we beat the pants off them, in the overall rating and the demographics everybody is looking into.” Lomachenko and Rigondeaux’s telecast made it four times boxing won. 

The UFC had its best year in 2016, when the organization hosted five events that topped 1 million pay-per-view buys. “That’s unprecedented in all of combat sports,” says Emhoff, who’s advised both boxers and mixed martial arts fighters over the course of  almost 20 years as a manager.

That type of success has not been sustainable. A Jan. 27 fight on Fox drew 1.593 million viewers and a 0.5 rating among the 18- to 49-year-olds, the lowest in series history and a 20 percent drop from 2017. The UFC event a month before that drew an 0.6 rating. “The UFC tend to kill their idols,” Emhoff  says. “By having the best facing the best constantly, they are wearing out all of their top fighters.”

By 2017 the UFC had lost Ronda Rousey, a fighter who transcended combat sports and became one of the most famous faces in America. Anderson Silva and Jon Jones—arguably the two best MMA fighters in the history of the sport—have both tested positive for PEDs on multiple occasions. Brock Lesnar, another major attraction, has also tested positive more than once and joined Rousey in the WWE. George St-Pierre, one of the most popular MMA fighters, reemerged last year for one fight but is now out indefinitely with a case of colitis. (His pay-per-view numbers were south of 900,000 buys, well below projections.)

The audience, too, is getting older. A study published last June by Sports Business Journal analyzed how each sport’s demographics have changed in the last 10 years; it found that the median age of TV viewers who watch mixed martial arts increased the most, from 34 years old to 49 years old. The actual median age of its fans, says the UFC, is 39. 

Instead of Killing Boxing, the UFC Plans to Use It As a Lifeline

But the biggest threat—and biggest potential—comes from its best-known star, McGregor, who’s publicly declared he won’t return to compete in the octagon unless he receives partial ownership and equity in the company. “They [UFC] have got to entice me now because I came from a billion-dollar fight,” he said recently. “You’ve got to entice me with some equity. I want ownership. I want to be true partners in this.”

The Mayweather-McGregor bout was the biggest event the UFC has been involved in. And at 4.3 million pay-per-view buys, it was the second-biggest pay-per-view event of all-time, second only to Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao in 2015. “Even as a B-side, the company made more money off that event than anything they’ve produced on their own,” says Emhoff. “So their 2017 revenues were probably pretty high as a result. But, going forward, it’s all pretty dependent on the new TV deal they negotiate and whether McGregor comes back to fight.” 

“Can’t Fix It. Can’t Kill It.” 

This erosion of viewers comes as UFC and Fox negotiate the terms of a new television deal. The current one, which expires this year, was seven years for $800-$900 million, averaging between $120-$140 million per year. In August, on the same day as the Mayweather-McGregor fight, ESPN announced a four-year deal worth an estimated eight figures with Top Rank boxing to take championship fights back from the premium networks such as HBO and Showtime. 

The reality of cord-cutting has affected all of the sports networks, and ratings for live-sports are down across most categories. Add in the UFC’s 2016 numbers, and ESPN—already extended from existing sports league deals—may not be in the running. The UFC has projected that a new deal could be for $400 million, but Fox just paid roughly $660 million to broadcast Thursday Night Football, another sport with declining ratings.

Instead of Killing Boxing, the UFC Plans to Use It As a Lifeline

The UFC is still tremendously popular overseas, especially in markets such as Brazil and Poland that boxing has never conquered. According to numbers provided by the UFC, a November fight at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai drew more than 1 million live views on PPTV, China’s main sports provider, and an additional 1 million in video on demand. Part of Endeavor’s purchase hinged on its abilities as a global event manager to maximize revenue from markets such as these.

But all signs point to it eventually teaming up with enigmatic boxing adviser Al Haymon to gain access to his vast roster of boxers. Perhaps the UFC, like boxing, will survive its death sentence for the next 120 years. There have been many lean periods in boxing, too, after its most marketable names walked away. The sport has survived 24 years of competition with the upstart UFC. Longtime HBO boxing color commentator Larry Merchant summed up the sport as succinctly anyone: “Boxing … can’t fix it, can’t kill it.”

Merchant’s HBO colleague Jim Lampley expanded on the point recently on a podcast with sports writer Bill Simmons. “I say the same thing to anyone and everyone who denigrates the sport,” he said. “As long as human beings walk on this planet, men are going to fight men for money, somehow or another. The only question is, how is it administered? You need legitimate governance. You need a responsible approach. And it’s never happened.”

To contact the author of this story: Brin-Jonathan Butler in New York at brinjonathanbutler@gmail.com.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.