The UFC Fan Base
November 29, 2010
There’s no shortage of news or information available regarding the UFC’s growth from a pay-per-view or gate perspective, but there’s considerably less information where the growth of its fan base is concerned. I suspect this is the case because the UFC is a relatively new sporting phenomenon that’s yet to gain the requisite level of acceptance that would make it worthwhile for survey companies to collect the data from consumers needed to produce relevant information on the fan base. However, the times are changing and we’re now beginning to see some information emerge related to the demographics and psychographics of the UFC fan.
Today, we’ll be taking a glimpse at the age and gender demographics of the UFC. I’ve also included information from the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, NASCAR, and MLS to provide some context to the overall sports landscape, which will help to put the UFC’s current fan base into perspective – both its strengths and shortcomings.
The following information was mined from the Simmons Research Database.
Notes and Definitions
The title of this article and its subject matter should not imply a bias towards the UFC. The survey was simply conducted in a manner that quizzed its respondents on a variety of topics, including their interest in professional sports leagues. I’ll remind you that while the interest in a league implies a larger interest in the sport, this is sometimes not the case. There are many “fans” that are interested in the UFC but not other MMA; likewise there are “fans” interested in the NFL but not college or high school football.
Thus, the “fan” is defined as someone that is “very”, “somewhat”, or “a little bit” interested in the league in question. These are obviously subjective terms open to a very large spectrum of interpretation, which is why I’ve also set out to compare these figures against the “avid fan” – someone that is “very” interested in the league in question.
I’ll also caution that the following sets of information are just estimates based on data in the Simmons Database. Other polls and databases have also produced similar information (e.g., ESPN Sports Poll and Scarborough) to support some of the analysis done below. However, I encourage everyone to read the following a natural level skepticism.
The size of the UFC fan base in the United States is estimated to be approximately 31 million people. You can see below how this compares to the size of the general fan base of the other major sports played in the US over the last three years. Note that the UFC was the only property to experience growth in its fan base of the last three years.
The size of the UFC avid fan base in the United States is estimated to be approximately 11 million people or 35% of the overall fan base. Note, again, that the UFC and the NHL were the only to properties to grow their avid fan bases over the last three years.
The avid fan as a percentage of all fans gives us an interesting look at how competitive the UFC is among most sports properties. The UFC has been able to match the avidity of most sports properties with the exception of the NFL. The NFL is the sports league model in many respects, but the way it has managed to engage its fans is what truly allows it to generate revenues far greater than any other league. Engaged fans are more apt to receive and comprehend advertiser and sponsor messages. When these television networks and corporate sponsors are evaluating a property they look to how well a property can engage its fans (or what opportunities they have to engage those fans). Thus, one of the mid-to-long term objectives and challenges for the UFC moving forward is to increase the level of avidity in its fan base to levels beyond 35% and into the 50% range.
I mentioned above the tremendous growth that the UFC has enjoyed over the last few years and the following comparison really puts that into perspective. It’s only over a three year period, but this is the only data we have and that’s largely because the UFC has only become a relevant commercial entity in the last 3-4 years.
Some might argue that 30% growth is meaningless considering the UFC didn’t start out with a lot to begin with, but I reject this counter argument. The UFC owns an interest level commensurate with lower tier sports leagues like the NHL and MLS; no one would dismiss the fan bases of those two leagues as insignificant.
The 18-34 demographic – specifically the M18-34 demographic – is always a very important consideration in any fan base analysis, because it is probably the most coveted target audience in the world. Those within the 18-34 demographic possess relatively high levels of disposable income and a demand for luxury goods, but also lack many of the serious financial or family commitments of other demographics.
The numbers for the UFC here aren’t that far off from the NFL or MLB, yet the discrepancy in required sponsorship investment is stunning. If a brand determined that its image was somewhat aligned and fit well with that of the UFC, it could literally own the UFC consumer for $5m/year in sponsorship fees and another $5-10m in activation. Compare that to $100m/year that Bud Light just dumped on the NFL or the $75m/year that Verizon just spent on the NFL.
Is it a risk? Sure. But what isn’t in this day and age. If we’ve all learned one thing in the last 12 months, it’s that no sponsorship is risk-less. Tiger Woods is that case study. However, there remains a sizable opportunity here for a company to come in and completely own a category tied to this sizable demographic for an absolute fraction of the price a company would pay somewhere else. The only two things the company would need to do are a.) commit to activating and b.) find a group of people that know the sport well enough to formulate the right activation plan (I think there are a few people around that might fit that mold!).
Men and Women
Dana White stated some time ago that the split between male and female UFC fans is somewhere in the range of 56-44, but the numbers below indicate that the split is actually closer to 75-25. How do we reconcile this information? I’d venture to guess that 60-40 is a good estimate for the split at live UFC events, but those events are not necessarily an accurate reflection of the entire fan base.
I’m not sure these figures come as much of a surprise to anyone. MMA is a rough and violent sport that still possesses a brutal image in some circles of the larger population. It will be a while before it can eschew conflicts with this boxing paradigm through which most casual sports fans still view combat sports. However, a 60-40 split across the entire fan base seems inevitable at some point.
Estimating Global Size
The global size of the UFC fan base is difficult to estimate, because there are material components of the fan base not included in the above survey or that do not live in the United States. We must reasonably adjust for American children (12-17), Canadians, British, and other fans throughout the world.
The following is a bit of envelope math using the American 18+ interest level (13%) as a foundation for adjustment and should only be taken as a loose estimate for the purpose of framing a conversation regarding the UFC/MMA fan base.
- Americans 12-17 at 13%: 800,000. This group accounts for approximately 8% of the American population and assuming the same overall interest levels between adults and children (which is conservative considering that the interest level for MMA is likely to be higher for youth) we arrive at 800,000.
- Canadians at 18%: 6,000,000. The sport has exploded in the country of 34 million people and the UFC’s interest levels in Canada far exceed that of the US in every demographic; 18% of the entire popular seems like a fair and conservative estimate, which gives us 6 million people.
- British at 8%: 5,000,000. The sport is slowly picking up speed in Britain, but still not close to enjoying the interest levels in Canada or the US.
- The World: 20,000,000. The rest of the world — including markets such as Japan, Korea, Brazil, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East — likely numbers into the 20 million range.
The above estimates would then put the global size of the UFC fan base at roughly 65 million. The growth potential is considerably higher, but that’s still a pretty solid number all things considered.