LAS VEGAS — For much of the past two decades, mixed martial arts has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the United States, its surge in popularity coinciding with mounting concerns over the sharp decline of boxing and its aging audience.
On Saturday the two sports finally will go head-to-head, in a sense, as UFC’s biggest star, Conor McGregor, challenges Floyd Mayweather Jr., in a boxing ring. Though the highly anticipated bout won’t settle any scores between the combat sports, it comes at a time when MMA and boxing are actually neck-and-neck in this country in terms of popularity.
According to a new Washington Post-UMass Lowell poll, 28 percent of Americans count themselves as fans of professional boxing, nearly matched by the 25 percent who say they’re fans of MMA.
Saturday’s bout is expected to be the most watched combat sporting event ever and could set several economic and viewership records. It will be aired in more than 200 countries and could attract a record number of viewers and 5 million pay-per-view purchases.
While casual fans especially might be attracted to the novelty of a highly skilled boxer squaring off against an MMA champion, the event has the ability to draw together fans of both fight disciplines. According to the Post-UMass Lowell poll, nearly two in five Americans — 38 percent — are fans of at least one of the two sports. Compared to a traditional boxing match, the fight could attract significant audience from MMA-only fans who are more likely to be white, live in the West and to be casual sports fans overall.
Boxing is a tradition-rich sport once considered a staple of the American sports fan’s diet, back in a time when heavyweight champions were global celebrities and sporting icons. Since before the turn of this century, though, the health of the sport has been oft-discussed with many analysts and skeptics hovering over the fight game, checking its pulse.
“I think a lot of concerns or doubts about the sport itself really came from the initial marketing of UFC,” said Stephen Espinoza, the executive vice president of Showtime Sports. “UFC’s launch was very much, ‘Boxing is dead, we’re the new thing.’ ”
The UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) started from scratch in 1993 and exploded in popularity in the mid-2000s. The company sold last year for $4.2 billion. While six of its nine best-selling pay-per-view shows have come in the past two years, the new poll suggests the sport’s growth has leveled off slightly. In a 2014 Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, 26 percent of adults say they were MMA fans, similar to the 25 percent of adults in the Post-UMass Lowell poll.
Meanwhile, Espinoza said that Showtime’s own research suggests that boxing has settled into a healthy place, and that the sport’s demographics are skewing young, particularly among minority audiences.
“A lot of the conventional wisdom turns out to be not quite accurate,” Espinoza said.
In fact, much of the Post poll’s findings buck some of the conventional wisdom surrounding the fandom of both sports.
● There is crossover between the two disciplines, as more than half of the fans of each sport also say they are fans of the other — 54 percent of boxing fans are fans of MMA, while 59 percent of MMA fans consider themselves boxing fans.
● Boxing appears to be making inroads with a younger audience. Among adults under age 40, 36 percent identify themselves as boxing fans, compared with 25 percent of 40- to 64-year-olds and 17 percent of those 65 and up. MMA have a similarly aged following. Some 34 percent of adults 18-39 years old say they are MMA fans, compared with 23 percent of those ages 40-64 and 13 percent of those ages 65 and up.
●Though women are significantly less likely than men to be fans of either sport, nonwhite women are far more apt to be fans of boxing than white women (40 percent compared with 8 percent), also outpacing the 25 percent of white men who are boxing fans.
Perhaps not as surprisingly, there are large racial differences. Whites are least likely to be fans of either MMA (22 percent) or boxing (17 percent). Fully 52 percent of African Americans and 61 percent of Hispanics consider themselves fans of boxing, but fewer than four in 10 black and Hispanic adults say they’re fans of MMA.
The Washington Post-UMass Lowell poll was conducted among a random national sample of 1,000 adults reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Much of the consternation over boxing’s future surrounded the younger demographics. Younger fans were gravitating toward MMA, and many feared boxing would struggle to replace its aging fan base.
Top Rank’s Bob Arum, the legendary promoter, said the mass appeal of the sport was hurt when the big prize fights gravitated to premium cable and pricey pay-per-view platforms. “Premium cable, like HBO and Showtime, which have been carrying the orb for boxing for decades now, skew old,” he said. “A lot of younger viewers no longer want to pay a monthly fee for premium cable. So as a result, it’s really choked off boxing.”
For years, Arum and his top deputy Todd duBoef would visit network executives and advertisers and hear how boxing’s older demographic wasn’t a valued audience.
“We couldn’t figure it out. We tried to figure out. We tried to go heavy into social media, do some innovative things, which helped. But it didn’t solve the problem,” Arum said. “We realized the only way to solve the problem is to break out of the mold of premium cable.”
This summer Top Rank has started televising bouts on ESPN, which is available in nearly 40 million more U.S. homes than HBO and Showtime, making top-end fights more accessible for fight fans. Similarly, Premier Boxing Champions has aired shows on a variety of networks, including NBC, CBS, ESPN and Fox Sports 1.
Through three broadcasts, Top Rank has been satisfied with its overall ratings — last week’s audience peaked at 1,327,000 viewers — but duBoef was especially pleased when he broke down the numbers. The shows did especially strong with 18- to 49-year-olds. One card even beat a UFC show that aired simultaneously on Fox Sports 1 in that prized demographic. And all the shows have been available over-the-top digitally via ESPN’s apps.
“I’m like holy [wow], this is music to my ears,” said duBoef, Top Rank’s president. “Everybody told me our product was old, didn’t fit the demographics they want, not sellable. But this is showing it’s sellable, the audience is there and boxing fans aren’t just 55-plus.”
Buoyed by the early results, Top Rank and ESPN are expected to announce a new four-year deal on Saturday in Las Vegas, hours before the spotlight shifts to the megafight across town.
Because the McGregor-Mayweather showdown is a pop culture event as much a sporting competition — oddsmakers peg the brash UFC superstar as a heavy underdog making his boxing debut against a five-division champion — its audience easily could span all age groups and demographics. Even though the bout pits the stars of different disciplines, UFC President Dana White doesn’t see the event as a competition between boxing and MMA.
“I don’t think it hurts either sport,” he said. “I think this is one of those cool situations where two guys are willing to take the risk to fight each other. And I think that this thing has captured the imagination of people.
“The only thing that I really focus on, and it’s always been my philosophy: I hope it’s a good fight. . . . As long as everyone walks away going, ‘Damn, that was a good fight,’ then nobody gets hurt. But if the fight sucks, it’s always bad. It’s bad for all combat sports, boxing and the UFC.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.
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