MMA’s bid to be smash hit

By Stuart Stone contact

- Last updated on GMT

Big hit: can mixed martial arts make 2019 the year it makes a breakthrough with viewers in pubs
Big hit: can mixed martial arts make 2019 the year it makes a breakthrough with viewers in pubs
BT Sport and Sky Sports’ respective deals with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator mean that pubs will have unprecedented access to live mixed martial arts events (MMA) in 2019. But will one of the world’s fastest growing sports enjoy breakout success in the on-trade this year?

Fixture list - 25 February - 11 March

Saturday 2 March

Premier League football – Tottenham v Arsenal – BT Sport

Premier League football – West Ham v Newcastle United – Sky Sports

Gallagher Premiership rugby union – Leicester Tigers v Wasps – BT Sport

Betfred Super League – Catalans Dragons v Warrington Wolves – Sky Sports

Sunday 3 March

Gallagher Premiership rugby union – Newcastle Falcons v Worcester Warriors – BT Sport

International cricket - Windies v England ODI Series 2019, fifth test - Sky Sports

Premier League football – Watford v Leicester City – Sky Sports

Premier League football – Fulham v Chelsea – Sky Sports

Premier League football – Everton v Liverpool – Sky Sports

Monday 4 March

EFL Championship football – Sheffield Wednesday v Sheffield United – Sky Sports

Superleague netball – Severn Stars v Saracens Mavericks – Sky Sports

Tuesday 5 March

Champions League football – Borussia Dortmund v Tottenham – BT Sport

International cricket - Windies v England Twenty20 Series 2019 – Sky Sports

Wednesday 6 March

Champions League football – Paris Saint-Germain v Manchester United – BT Sport

Friday 8 March

Boxing – Daniel Dubois v Razvan Cojanu – BT Sport

Gallagher Premiership rugby union – Bath Rugby v Saracens – BT Sport

EFL Championship football – Norwich City v Swansea City – Sky Sports

Betfred Super League – Wigan Warriors v Huddersfield Giants – Sky Sports

Saturday 9 March

Premier League football – Manchester City v Watford – BT Sport

Premier League football – Crystal Palace v Brighton and Hove Albion – Sky Sports

Women’s Six Nations – England v Italy – Sky Sports

Betfred Super League – Catalans Dragons v Salford Red Devils – Sky Sports

Six Nations rugby – Scotland v Wales – BBC

Six Nations rugby – England v Italy - ITV

Sunday 10 March

Premier League football – Liverpool v Burnley – BT Sport

Premier League football – Chelsea v Wolves – Sky Sports

Premier League football – Arsenal v Manchester United – Sky Sports

EFL Championship football – Birmingham City v Aston Villa – Sky Sports

Gallagher Premiership rugby union – Harlequins v Gloucester Rugby – BT Sport

Six Nations rugby – Ireland v France - ITV

In 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) held its ­first pay-per-view (PPV) event in Denver, Colorado, in front of 7,800 intrigued fight fans. The inaugural bout between US sumo wrestler Teila Tuli and Holland’s Gerard Gordeau who practised savate – described by Vice Magazine’s Fightland blog​ as ‘France’s dangerous ballet’ – ended after 26 seconds. The winner, Gordeau, was taken to hospital later that evening having found one of the sumo’s teeth embedded in his foot.

Another of Tuli’s teeth was said to have landed in the front row of Denver’s McNichols Sports Arena – probably leaving the 86,000 fans who stumped up to watch the event in the comfort of their own home feeling like their money had been well spent.

Fast forward to October 2018 and more than 2.5m people paid to watch Dubliner Conor McGregor and Russia’s Khabib Nurmagomedov on PPV – a record for the organisation – after UFC president Dana White had claimed just a few weeks earlier that the promotion was worth in the region of $7bn.

The impressive ­figures aren’t just coming from the UFC’s top man, either. McGregor’s fight with Nurmagomedov was the eighth most searched for sporting event on sport pub finding app MatchPint last year – with pubs showing the event more sought after than England’s Autumn International rugby union ­fixture against the All Blacks, and England’s ­first football World Cup semi-final since 1990, against Croatia.

Moreover, when McGregor, the UFC’s ­first ever champion in multiple weight classes, took on brash boxer Floyd Mayweather in the unbeaten American’s 50th bout as a professional in August 2017, Stonegate Pub Company venues showing the ­fight saw an average sales uplift of £1,922 and an extra 320 customers.

‘Ground-breaking’ partnership

Sky Sports recently announced it had agreed an exclusive deal to broadcast events from tournament-style mixed martial arts promotion Bellator throughout 2019 – its ­first deal to show MMA in the UK. “This is a ground-breaking partnership in the UK and we are thrilled to bring live Bellator events to our passionate fan base there,” Bellator’s president Scott Coker said. “We have worked diligently to ­find the right network in the UK and Sky Sports will undoubtedly deliver for our viewers. I’m excited that our fans overseas will now be able to be part of our events that take place around the globe and witness some of the best athletes in the sport today.”

The deal, which includes Bellator events taking place in the US, London and Dublin, kicked off on 16 February when south London’s Michael ‘Venom’ Page – who had a brief foray in professional boxing under the promotion of former cruiserweight and heavyweight world title holder David Haye – outpointed long-standing rival and fellow Brit Paul Daley. It follows the return of broadcasting rights for MMA’s premier promotion, the UFC, to BT Sport after previous rights holder Eleven Sports relinquished its hold over them in the UK, having never made its events available to pub operators.

“Similar to boxing, UFC offers pubs and clubs the opportunity to broadcast a one off, much-anticipated event,” according to Bruce Cuthbert, director of commercial customers at BT Sport. “In turn, this allows them to create a special occasion for sport fans and to increase footfall in venue, outside of regular hours.

“As with any event like this, marketing is key, both in-venue and online, making sure that regulars and locals know that you are planning to be open and showing the fight. The Wilder v Fury fight last year demonstrated that customers have a real appetite for combat sports, even when they are shown in the early hours of the morning.

“Considering its surge in popularity over recent years, it could be argued that MMA is already enjoying a boost in profile. MMA is becoming more and more mainstream. If this is to continue, and if the sport is to continue growing in popularity, people need to be able to watch it.

“BT Sport’s multi-year extension of exclusive UFC rights means that BT Sport pubs and clubs will have easy access to world-class bouts for the foreseeable future”

The next 12 months, therefore, offers pubs unprecedented access to events from the two leading promoters of what is widely lauded as the fastest-growing sport on the planet – and one that has already yielded encouraging results in the on-trade.

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The McGregor effect

With impressive viewing ­figures and a solid UK platform for its two major promotions, is MMA poised to take off in a big way on this side of the Atlantic, and does it present a legitimate threat to boxing’s popularity over here?

According to MatchPint research, the real interest for people watching UFC in pubs seems to be in McGregor rather than MMA more broadly. McGregor versus Nurmagomedov appeared in the pub-finding app’s top 10 events of 2018, only ­five UFC events appeared in the platform’s top 300 most searched fixtures over the same period. The preliminary bouts on the McGregor v Nurmagomedov card were 32nd with the next best UFC events in 229th, 240th and 292nd positions.

­This draws loose parallels to the recent resurgence in British boxing, with British heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua widely credited with having dragged boxing back into the mainstream. However, unlike UFC numbers, there’s more strength and depth to pub boxing figures. Yes, Joshua is pubgoers’ firm favourite, but he’s by no means the only show in town.

While positions one and two on MatchPint’s top 10 most searched for sporting events involved Anthony Joshua; Deontay Wilder v Tyson Fury, George Groves v Chris Eubank Jnr and the rematch between Tony Bellew v David Haye also featured, with all three preceded by weeks of trash talk and high-profile build-up.

Page and Daley’s rivalry, which played out in Sky Sports’ first MMA broadcast in the UK, has spanned four-years and interestingly drawn comparison to Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank’s bitter boxing feud in the 1990s.

Given UK boxing fans have long bought PPV off the back of a fascination with story and character over combat – Frank Bruno, Ricky Hatton, Benn and Eubank, and more recently Anthony Joshua – it makes sense that showcasing someone like McGregor is key to prying open the UK market. However, it could take longer than the next 12 months for more contenders to establish a persona and for Britain’s pubgoing public to sink their teeth into MMA more broadly.

Reboot for British-American heavyweight rivalry

Fans of the noble art of boxing are in for a treat as the latest chapter in British-US rivalry is played out on screens in pubs across the country.

Over the course of almost a century, world title clashes between British and American heavyweights have been among boxing’s most iconic. With Anthony Joshua’s American debut confi rmed and sanctioning body the World Boxing Council (WBC) ordering Wilder-Fury II and south London’s Dillian Whyte set to face Californian Dominic Breazeale, the resumption of hostilities is good news for the pub trade.

As far back as Welshman Tommy Farr’s controversial failed attempt to wrestle the title from legendary champion Joe Louis in front of 37,000 people at New York Yankees’ stadium in 1937, the ongoing transatlantic row has been punctuated by knockouts, bravado, sold-out stadiums and a bitten leg at a press conference.

The rivalry has delivered among others: the iconic image of Muhammad Ali on the canvas at Wembley after being felled by Henry Cooper in 1963– before Ali rallied to win by a knockout in the fifth; high drama as Lennox Lewis squared o‑ against Hasim Rahman; Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield in the 1990s and early 2000s; Anthony Joshua dethroning ‘Prince’ Charles Martin in 2016 to win his first heavyweight title; and Tyson Fury’s dramatic 2018 draw with Deontay Wilder.

The 2019 reboot – Joshua v Jarrell Miller at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 1 June, a rematch between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder and an interim world title bout between Dillian Whyte and Dominic Breazeale – is great news for fight fans and publicans alike. Data from pub-finding app MatchPint recorded more searches for each of Joshua v Parker, Joshua v Povetkin and Wilder v Fury than it did for any football match broadcast in 2018. What’s more, the average sales uplift for Stonegate pubs showing Anthony Joshua v Joseph Parker in March 2018 was £1,725.

Commenting on the confi rmation of Joshua v Miller, Matchroom Boxing MD Eddie Hearn explained: “AJ has created an incredible ‘Lions’ Den’ atmosphere in the UK and we plan to bring that energy to New York. “When you look at the heavyweight greats that have graced the renowned ‘mecca of boxing’, the names of Ali, Frazier, Marciano and Tyson stand fi rm and 1 June will be a moment when the world will witness AJ’s turn.”

Sky Business director of marketing Tracy Harrison added: “We are delighted to be offering customers Joshua’s first fight in the US. Sky Sports will be providing every step of the build-up, giving licensees the chance to attract customers into their pubs and bars long before the fight starts.

“The evening has every chance of becoming one of the great sporting occasions, so we encourage venues to start planning and preparing to make it an unmissable night for their customers. It’s going to be another exciting chapter in the Joshua story.”

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