The first thing that caught my eye after arriving at the Target Center for this past Friday's UFC on FX 5 event in Minneapolis wasn't Jacob Volkmann's celebratory post fight interview after defeating Shane Roller via neck crank submission; rather it was the decidedly scanty audience that joined the former Golden Gopher in the University of Minnesota's traditional cheer.
To my left and right were seas of empty seats at both ends of the inner-bowl. Here and there the heads of a few scattered fans stood out like bits of flotsam and jetsam floating in a placid sea. The area directly in front of me was more full in comparison, but intermittent gaps created the impression of a second grader's smile after losing a few teeth. A glance at the upper deck revealed it to be closed for the evening. The overall effect was akin to arriving at a much anticipated party and being greeted by the sight of a dozen or so morose dudes gathered around a keg and swapping stories about the good 'ol days.
I thought perhaps the early start time was the reason for the tepid attendance and that the place might fill up some once people who were unable to get out of work early started arriving. It turned out I was wrong. The crowd remained sparse all night when viewed against the backdrop of the massive Target Center. With all those empty seats it felt like those of us who had shown up for the show were the uncool kids who didn't know where the more exciting party was being held.
One might think that the majority of those who paid for tickets to a show headlined by relatively obscure fighters like Travis Browne and Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva would be the type of hardcore fans who actually watch Facebook fights and read sites such as MMAFighting.com on a daily basis, but based on the fans sitting in my section this didn't seem to be the case.
To my immediate left was a particularly vocal fan who offered this sage bit of advice to whoever happened to be in the cage at the time, "Kick him in the pooper!" That nobody ever laughed at this feeble attempt at humor didn't discourage him from repeating it at least once per round.
Sitting behind me was a trio of drunks who didn't feel shy about shouting churlish insults whenever there was a lull in the action. Among the few printable epithets these guys hurled at the combatants in the cage were witticisms such as, "Kill somebody already!" and "We wanna see blood you [expletives]! Listening to these clowns was like watching the show with Just Bleed Guy on commentary.
As the night wore on and the fights took a turn for the lackluster with the main card, the fans around me grew increasingly impatient. There was an almost palpable feeling of agitation when John Dodson and Jussier ‘Formiga’ da Silva failed to engage one another for the first nine minutes of their bout to determine the number one contender for the newly minted UFC Flyweight Championship. When a hailstorm of boos reigned down on the two top flyweights between rounds it exposed an inconvenient truth about fans who boo fighters.
Booing two fighters who are risking their health by engaging in a dangerous sport is without question rude and in extremely poor taste. However, for casual fans who pay high ticket prices to attend an entertaining night of fights it is their only means of expressing their discontent with the product they paid for. These fans aren't cognizant of the sacrifice and dedication that goes into being a professional fighter; they are only concerned with what they feel is a bad return on their investment of oftentimes $100 or more for a ticket.
Condemning casual fans who boo fighters misses the point. At issue isn't whether or not it's ignorant to boo fighters, but rather what happens to the UFC when these casual fans go away? After fans booed the inaugural Flyweight Championship fight between Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez an incensed Dana White claimed those who booed weren't "real fans" of the sport and said that he didn't want them to attend UFC events in the future.
The problem with this attitude lies in all those empty seats that stood as a mocking reminder of the UFC's decrease in popularity over the past couple years. Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta remain adamant that running more shows hasn't had an adverse effect on the UFC's popularity, but there would appear to be a correlation between the abundance of shows since the FOX deal came into effect this year and a downturn of interest in the UFC product. Overexposure appears to already be thinning the fanbase.
UFC on FX 5's attendance figures may have been similar to what past shows in the series have drawn at 7,049 attendees, but the live gate was towards the lower end of the spectrum. UFC on FX 4 drew a $1.1 million gate, and UFC on FX 3 drew what was at the time decried as a disappointing $329,110. In contrast this past Friday's show came in a little higher but was in the same ballpark with a gate of $358,000. Numbers like this past Friday's might be enough for the UFC to remain profitable, but they also suggest that the company would be wise to avoid turning away potential customers.
This includes the large number of UFC fans who don't follow the inner workings of the sport closely. These casual fans may be more apt to make inane comments and boo fighters, but their money is every bit as green as that of the hardcores.
If casual fans burn out on the UFC and only the hardcore audience remains, be prepared for a lot more empty seats in the future.