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UFC Goes Bigtime

Football, baseball, basketball, hockey -- the four "major" pro sports. Ok, NASCAR must be included and may have even be in second slot in overall popularity. Now I learn that "Ultimate Fighting" is in the mix. While channel surfing Sunday night, I ran across a 60 Minutes' segment on Mixed Martial Arts: A New Kind of Fight. Sure, I had noticed that ultimate fighting had become more visible, but, erroneously, I viewed it as in the backwater of American sports. A recent event in Anaheim turned out 17,000 spectators and 700,000 pay-per-viewers at $40 a pop. Here is part of the interview with one of the UFC partners [UFC website here]:

[Dana White] and his partners bought the UFC for $2 million. Asked what it's worth now, White says, "I don't know. A lot more than two million." "The smile on your face suggests maybe over 100 million, I'm guessing," Pelley asks. "Could be. Could be. Could be a billion. I don't know," White says. It seems plausible. The International Fight League just went public and it is valued at more than $150 million.

What changed UFC from illegal little sideshow into megabucks? Interestingly, a constitution, of sorts. When White and his partners took over, they outlawed the most dangerous moves like kicks to the groin, and started promoting the idea of combatants with "mixed martial arts" styles. The move gained legal sanctioning in 21 states but also seemed to legitimize the sport in the eyes of more customers. It seems that minimal constitutional government beats anarchy in the eyes of both state regulators and customers.

There are obvious moral issues that arise, and the 60 Minutes segment gave the UFC partners a decent opportunity to make their case. A reputable study of boxing versus UFC shows that UFC participants suffer fewer serious head or brain injuries. The mixing of combat styles reduces the head pounding. Going beyond the boxing comparison, UFC's White asked,

"What could be more violent than the NFL? ... broken arms, legs getting snapped in half, broken necks, what do you consider violent?"

He does have a point. I suppose one retort might be that these injuries are side effects, whereas in UFC beating the daylights out of each other is the objective.

Whether boxing or UFC, sports where the object is to pummel an opponent into quitting will always raise moral issues. Society is not ready to sanction fights to-the-death even where opponents voluntarily sign up. Whether it should or not, and how it should decide has occuppied the time of people like Jim Buchanan over the past 30 years and many before him from other perspectives. From my own personal perspective, I'm willing to grant that UFC is probably safer than boxing in terms of head injuries, but there is something disturbing about it. Violence in sports especially as it seems to become a major driver of customer interest does concern me. Hockey's toleration of fighting or the NFL's increasingly slow whistles permitting more abuse of ball carriers because of the fan appeal may not be exactly on a par with the Rollerball (the 1970s film) level of violence and decadence, but it leans in that direction. However, I digress -- this is, after all, the Sports Economist, not the Sports Moral Philosopher!