Someday, 2008 may be remembered as the year when mixed martial arts went mainstream. Predictably, criticism of the sport may also reach a fever pitch this year. Detractors will tell you that the mainstreaming of MMA is abominable, that the sports' fans only tune in to see brutality.
Don't take these arguments at face value. By such logic, the NHL and professional boxing -- the two sports where we could traditionally tune in in expectation of seeing one man men punch another man's face open -- should still be holding their own on network television schedules. They aren't.
Critics won't tell you MMA keeps growing because it's easy to understand, fun to watch, and filled with memorable competitors. They won't tell you that the concussion policy of UFC, the biggest mixed martial arts organization, puts the NFL and the NCAA to shame.
Don't take my word for it. Look at how the gatekeepers of American sport -- people who have no interest in associating themselves with a bloodsport that would alienate middle America -- have opened the doors wide for MMA. Consider the amazing developments in just the past month:
1. For the first time ever, MMA has a network television deal, as the mixed martial arts promotion EliteXC -- and its most popular fighter Kimbo Slice -- will appear on CBS this year. The CBS deal was so important that, for what I'm sure was the first time ever, MMA was the top story on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption Thursday:
Tony Kornheiser said of MMA, "This thing tries to be savage," and he's welcome to his opinion. But the fact is that MMA can now lead the sports news.
2. The biggest advertiser in sports, Anheuser Busch, has signed a lucrative agreement with UFC. It might sound silly to suggest that a beer (and not even a good beer) could lend anything to UFC beyond another source of revenue. But while the revenue is important, being associated with a big-name brand is important, too. Darren Rovell of CNBC writes:
For all that UFC was--the pay-per-view dollars and the merchandising--it wasn't for blue chip brands. Well, that's not the case anymore. And for all its critics, the bottom line is that this is proof that the UFC got too big to ignore anymore.To Rovell's way of thinking, the UFC 84 event on May 24, when Bud Light's logo is first stamped in the center of the Octagon, is the moment when UFC leaves its upstart status behind and joins the establishment.
3. Mark Cuban is serious about pumping money into the sport and pitting the two fighters everyone wants to see, Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko, against each other. The Dallas Mavericks owner is more than just a billionaire who wants to play with his expensive sports-related toys. He's a businessman who cares about the quality of the product and that -- as well as making money -- is why he wants to be the one who puts Couture and Emelianenko in the cage together.
Cuban wrote on his blog this week that HDNet's target audience is men, 25 plus, "Those who have graduated for the most part from Spike and want a mix of smarter programming and presentation." A commitment to quality is steadily making HDNet Fights a player in the MMA world, even without a Couture-Emelianenko fight. If Cuban adds that fight to what he already has, he becomes more important to MMA than he is to the NBA.
All of these are good things. But there are issues ahead, and they have nothing to do with the alleged brutality of the sport.
The splintering effect. If EliteXC and Cuban gain ground on UFC, we could be headed toward a time where the top MMA fighters are evenly split among three different organizations, and that prevents fans from seeing the best against the best -- away from what we thought we would get when UFC bought Pride.
The worst-case scenario is the "alphabet soup" problem boxing has had, where no one can sort out who the real champion is among the WBC, WBO, IBF and WBA title holders. The best-case scenario is something similar to the 1990s WWF-WCW rivalry in pro wrestling that actually attracted more fans to wrestling before WWF (now WWE) ultimately won the battle and emerged stronger for it.
EliteXC could end up embarrassing the sport. "Putting a sport on television does not necessarily mean it will be a huge success," says Robert Thompson, a television and media professor at Syracuse University. "XFL is the perfect example. That was supposed to be a huge sport on TV and that crashed and burned quickly."
When Vince McMahon's brand of football became a punchline, it didn't do a thing to harm the sport's popularity. But MMA doesn't have football's fan base and cultural acceptance. Is Kimbo Slice really the person we want as the public face of the most-watched fight in the sport's history? If EliteXC's debut doesn't go well, all of MMA could suffer.
MMA needs a greater presence in the video game world. Here's a look at the upcoming game, UFC 2009:
Looks pretty cool, right? But MMA video games have been virtually nonexistent in the United States. The NFL has successfully used the Madden game to attract a younger fan base, and for MMA to continue growing as a sport, it needs to be successful in the video game world.
THQ will release UFC 2009, and EA Sports is likely to release an EliteXC-themed game, and it's important to the sport for those games to be made and marketed as top-shelf properties, not afterthoughts.
Time to put the 'MMA vs. boxing' meme behind us. UFC President Dana White sometimes comes across as though he wants to pick a fight with boxing, but realistically, boxing is so well established in our culture that it's foolish to think MMA can win that fight.
In fact, the two sports ought to have the kind of symbiotic relationships healthy leagues enjoy. Boxing could use more exposure to young fight fans, and MMA could certainly use some of the Hemingway-style gravitas that surrounds the finest boxing matches.
MMA can't miss this window of opportunity. Fifteen years ago, when the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event took place, it was derided as human cockfighting, and many lawmakers wanted it banned. That the sport is on network television only a decade and a half later is remarkable.
But forward progress is not inevitable. The average American doesn't know what mixed martial arts is, and as more Americans get exposed to the sport, MMA needs a good public face. In the next few months, MMA could begin the transition from a niche sport to the mainstream, much the way NASCAR has. Or it could fall flat on its face on network TV like the XFL, and 10 years from now we could end up looking back at 2008 as both the sport's high point and the start of its decline.