This weekend I was spending some time with some new friends, a couple which were Atlanta natives that transplanted down to my home state of Florida. Generally nice people and a sweet couple the two are the epitome of average, average jobs, average lives, average cars, average apartment, average looks even. The only defining characteristics that really stood out is the couple’s fanatical devotion to sports, whether it be college football, the NFL, baseball, hockey, tennis, any sport, anytime, they’re there. They’re car is filled with tennis balls and racks on the inside and Atlanta Braves decals on the outside. Their apartment and Facebooks are filled with pictures of them at various sporting events and despite only being in Florida for 3 weeks, they already have a couple pictures of them mugging it up with some of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers players. These people are sports fans, folks.
Which brings me back to this past weekend, leaving the bar after watching Rashad crumple Tito’s solar plexus with a seismic knee; I linked up with the sports fans to make the most out of a Saturday night. While in the car hunting for a spot for the night the guy asked me how the fight went and who fought. Not knowing how into MMA he was I kept it short, replying back, “Oh, it was great, Tito Ortiz lose to this guy, Rashad Evans.” (As an Evans fan it was hard to down play him as some guy but Tito is a bigger name to the masses.) He casually replied back with a “That’s cool.” Before recounting his experience of a fight he once watched.
"Yeah, I like MMA, its pretty cool. I remember I was watching that one fight, where Rampage Jones fought Brock Lesnar, that shit was awesome! It was so great because Brock was supposed to be this big shit and then Rampage knocked him out in like the first round! I love Rampage, he’s so awesome!" (Those few sentences are such a cataclysmic, multidimensional fail, that I don’t even want to touch it. And no that wasn’t a typo he said Rampage Jones.)
Trying not to come off as a condescending douche bag and embarrass the guy in front of his girl and others in the car, I tried to correct him with some finesse. "Yeah, I remember that fight, I don’t think it was Rampage, I think it was this other guy named Cain." (Again, a huge Cain fan, it was painful to relegate the current UFC heavyweight champion and number one ranked heavyweight in the world down to, "this other guy", le sigh.) He was pretty confident it was Rampage and also drunk so, I just dropped the subject.( Also, the way the guy talked about the fight it seemed like it was a great fight and I didn’t want to wreck the guy’s fantasy.) Now, all racist jokes aside (dark brown pride?) Rampage Jackson looks nothing like Cain Velasquez, and Brock Lesnar looks not even remotely close to anyone Rampage has ever fought.
Now, most of my friends watch MMA to various different degrees but are what I would consider actual MMA fans, so for me this was a huge insight it to the average person’s depth of knowledge and general awareness of MMA. All I could think is how can this guy, who is such a huge sports fan and so passionate and devoted to one of the most boring sport to watch (baseball) be so grossly misinformed about a fight he actually watched?
This leads me to believe that MMA’s transition from fringe sport to mainstream mainstay is going to be even more of an uphill battle then we all thought. Putting aside having to learn the layered complexities of the sport, that’ll come as you watch, the largest hurdle to overcome is, in order to make it more than just two dudes hitting each other you have to become more personally invested it who is hitting who, that means having to pick "a guy". Picking a fighter to root for and be a fan of is a really personal decision that has more to do with a fighter’s looks and personality then it do wins and losses. Let’s say Brock Lesnar brought you into the sport, you feel like you like MMA but you think Brock is a prick and you tuned in to watch him get his ass kicked but he won that fight, where do you go from there? How do you find out that Lyoto Machida is "your guy" if he wasn’t on that card you watched? What if welterweight is you preferred division but it was a card loaded with lightweights and light heavyweights?
When comparing MMA to the NFL, NBA, and MLB the major advantage the big three have in gaining and keeping fans is franchises. Thanks to franchises you don’t have to like a player, you don’t need to agree or disagree with a player’s personality (for the most part) you can just be a loyal fan of the team. You can just be an Indianapolis Colts fan. Since a franchise is mainly a faceless entity, the entire roster is can change every season and you can still be a Colts fan, the brand, the name is bigger than the individual players.
Another leg up the big three have is an instant local fan base. If you live in Boston and you’re interested into becoming a fan of the NBA’s brand of basketball (NBA isn’t a sport and neither is UFC), you have the Celtics right there for you, no big decision and nobody is really even going to challenge you decision of rooting for the home team. That ease of induction for a newbie makes it less difficult to settle in and become a lifelong fan of the sport or the brand, something MMA doesn’t have. To use Mister Lesnar as an example again, if you moved from Maine to Minnesota you’re not going to automatically become a Brock fan.
So the question is, how do the Zuffa boys showcase their massive collection of talent in a way that allows for newer fans to become more personally invested in the sport and the fighters? The Ultimate Fighter was a great concept but I highly doubt that anybody is going to gather their friends around and shell out 60 bucks to see Jonathan Brookins or Tony Ferguson fight.
Sound off maniacs, do you have the magic answer?