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Is MMA a Sport?

When it comes to MMA, cries about boring fights are now commonplace. This begs the question, is MMA a sport or sports entertainment?

Note: In the following article, I first talk about MMA (mixed martial arts) before exclusively referencing the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). Yes, I know that MMA is the sport and the UFC is the promotion that hosts said sport. However, I'm unfamiliar with other promotions and thus chose to focus on the UFC. Thanks for your understanding. I hope you enjoy the article.

Bear with me for just a moment. I promise that this isn't another article about the violence of combat sports. I for one respect the sacrifice the fighters make by stepping into the octagon for our entertainment. However, for some fans, the health of the fighters takes a backseat to their enjoyment. This is where my question comes in. Is MMA a sport in which the fighters do whatever it takes to win or is MMA pure entertainment where winning is only an afterthought?

Before I share my opinion, I will share the opposing side. Those who value excitement above all reference the business model of the UFC and sports leagues in general. In short, these leagues provide a service, a sport that entertains a crowd, which in turn draws in viewers who provide the funding of the league. Based on this, if the UFC fails to put on exciting fights, their viewership will decrease, leading to their profits plummeting. As such, the fighters should try their best to be exciting as that is the only way to ensure the success of their business and the extension of their careers. If the fighters cannot be trusted to reach expectations, promotions should implement rule changes that essentially make boring fights illegal.

I lean towards the other side of the fence. I see sports leagues as a form of indirect entertainment. In short, the athletes care only about winning and the fans find this effort entertaining. Allow me to explain. The NBA is by far the most popular basketball league in the world. Although they have dips in viewerships at times (When was the last time you watched a Sacramento Kings game?) the words "that game was so boring" or "they're such a boring team" are rarely spoken. Furthermore, when phrases like these are uttered, they are often met with remarks about the importance of strategy. For example, the Golden State Warriors saw two of their stars, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, go down to injury during the 2019 NBA Finals. In response, the Toronto Raptors implemented a number of zone defenses into their game plan to slow down multiple-time MVP Stephen Curry. In case you are unaware, the NBA once banned zone defenses because they slow down the game, prevent high-flying dunks, and lead to an overall underwhelming time for some fans. However, despite running zone defense, the 2019 NBA Finals garnered about 15 million viewers per game. This number is the most the NBA has seen for a finals series to this day.

Now let's look across the league. Although not nearly on the level of the NBA, the Euroleague is growing in popularity. The Euroleague which, as its name entails, features the best basketball clubs across Europe, has a number of rules which the NBA banned namely for the viewer experience. These rules include a stricter enforcement of traveling and a decrease in what are known as touch fouls (fouls that should be called by the book but lack the amount of contact to truly warrant a foul call. This is one of the reasons why the Euroleague is said to have a more physical style of basketball). Despite having a slower, more physical style (a style which could be argued is less exciting than the NBA) the Euroleague saw its cumulative viewership grow eight percent from 2016-2019 to a grand total of 3.1 billion. I did mention earlier that the NBA still holds the title of most popular basketball league but I would argue that the lack of soccer (Sorry to everyone outside of the U.S.) in the United States is largely responsible for this discrepancy.

In short, I think the UFC would be fine if they focused on developing MMA as a sport as this problem is virtually non-existent in the world of basketball. However, it would be unjust to turn a blind eye to the entertainment style of business shown by the UFC. For example, there is no competitive architecture in the UFC. Before you say they have a ranking system, take a moment and ask yourself what those rankings are based on. In reality, they're baseless. How often have we seen people catapulted to the top despite being ranked in the 10s? Furthermore, how often do you see people argue over rankings based on the strength of one's schedule? Other leagues have a clear season schedule with a playoff format based on overall records. In the UFC, a shot at the belt seems to be based on a fighter's popularity which makes sense considering the UFC's pay-per-view model. This is why the UFC in many ways mirrors the WWE. The promos, the drama, the storytelling. There is no doubt about the realism of MMA but whether the UFC falls into the category of sport or entertainment couldn't be less clear.

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