On a stage set up in Trump Tower were business tycoon Donald Trump, boxing legend and mogul Oscar De La Hoya, MMA pioneer Tito Ortiz, and possibly the greatest mixed martial artist ever, Fedor Emelianenko. The group was there to drum up interest for their event, but try as I might to focus, my mind kept alternating between the events in Manhattan and the pomp and circumstance going on in Washington, D.C. Why? Because Obama won on a simple campaign that can be summed up in a single word: change.
Change is a scary word for many, exciting to others. Change means movement, progress, but it also means hard work and uncertainty. It’s an intangible idea that only comes about through tangible action.
When it comes to change in mainstream media, it is usually slow going. This just in: the media is usually quick to break news, but often slow to understand its significance. Mixed martial arts gets bigger and bigger, with pay-per-view buyrates that have effectively surpassed boxing. It gets ratings. Its fans are ravenous for information. Yet it is still considered a second- or even third-tier sport by the mainstream media. Why?
I work for a network that broadcasts the NHL. On New Year’s Day, an outdoor game at Wrigley Field drew over 4 million viewers in what made it the most highly rated regular season NHL game in 34 years. Ken Shamrock-Tito Ortiz III did those kinds of numbers just over two years ago, and on cable. Here-and-gone organization EliteXC did over 4 million viewers twice in the three shows it ran during 2008.
What about tennis ratings? Here’s a graph of Wimbledon ratings over the last 25 years. If you don’t feel like clicking, it generally looks like the last year of a stock market graph, a downward plunge. Last year’s Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal Wimbldeon final matchup, considered by many the greatest match ever, drew 5.2 million viewers. A Kimbo Slice fight on CBS drew more than that (6.5 million).
OK, you say, but those are niche sports these days. So how about basketball? LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are about as mainstream as it gets, right? Well, The NBA on ESPN averages 1.73 million viewers per game on primetime telecasts. Meanwhile, NBC runs a weekly late-night Saturday MMA show “Strikeforce on NBC” which has drawn over 1 million viewers at times, despite airing at 2 am or later.
I’m not pointing this out to bash any of the above sports; I just think it’s time to stop questioning MMA’s place in the sports world. When you look at the numbers, you have to believe that TV executives are holding on to what they know, and afraid of change. Yes, MMA is a violent sport. There is no denying that. But football, our most celebrated television sport, is inherently more so. Say what you will about MMA, but nothing that goes on in the sport is as bad as (legally) blindsiding a defenseless player, something that happens with regularity and is often celebrated. The detractors say our sport’s fans have a bloodlust, but Ryan Clark’s hit of Willis McGahee from the AFC Championship game last weekend is all over Youtube. There are over 100 versions of it there and it’s probably been viewed millions of times.
Sports are physical, and MMA is extremely so. New York still refuses to sanction the sport. Why? Because TV executives are afraid of the backlash that might come from viewers or sponsors. To be fair, the worry is justified because the high-priced executives that run companies with advertising dollars aren’t usually in the MMA demographic. It’s a safe stance for them.
Over time, however, this will rectify itself. Change doesn’t come from the few; it comes from the many. Barack Obama was elected largely because a grass-roots approach around a once little-known candidate built into a tidal wave of support. So too did MMA rise from similar obscurity because of the fans that refused to let it die.
I get asked all the time about why more MMA isn’t on TV. The answer is simple: because the people in power don’t want it there. But that won’t last forever. No one is in the seat of power forever, and the next person in the throne is more likely to be part of MMA nation.
The solution is simple: keep on watching; keep on supporting the sport; keep the faith. This is a time in the world's history for open minds willing to listen to ideas they might not ever be able to conceptualize themselves. I'm not suggesting MMA has any importance in the larger world issues that dominate the day, only that the same generations that helped elect an African-American president for the first time understand that nothing is static and that the world must continue to evolve. So it is in life, so it is in sport.
So it may seem a long time coming for MMA fans eager to see their sport get the respect it deserves. That time will come. As we saw during Election Day and again during Tuesday’s Inauguration, millions of people wanting change cannot be denied forever.
Video: MMA from NBC Sports
Cavalcante didn't want fight to stop
After losing his fight with Justin Gaethje due to a deep cut above his left eye, Gesias Cavalcante talks about the decision to stop the fight. Cavalcante says he was ready to continue the fight before the doctors made the call.
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