THE BLOG

Can the World's Fastest Growing Sport Crack the UK Market?

24/03/2014 13:07 GMT | Updated 20/05/2014 10:59 BST

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) President Dana White has always said that the UK is an important market in the company's global ambitions, but to date, with only 10 events being staged in the UK since 2007, the UFC and the sport of MMA in general has not penetrated the mainstream.

There are several reasons why the fastest growing sport in the world - that is in both viewership and participation - has not made an impression on these shores, but most notably it is the absence of a UK champion or true UK superstar. Michael 'The Count' Bisping is, or was, the closest, but he is very much in the latter stages of his career now having failed to secure the title shot he feel he deserved, while further candidates like Tom 'Kong' Watson are simply not at an elite level; Dan 'The Outlaw' Hardy has been diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome and his fighting career rests in the balance; and new pin up boy Jimi Manuwa is at 34 a relative latecomer to the sport and not an obvious torchbearer.

A further reason for the UK's minimal uptake in MMA can be attributed to a lack of an obvious historical martial art, or even a modern martial art or combat sport, within our culture and history. Brazil has Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, there is Judo and Karate in Japan, Taekwondo in Korea, collegiate wrestling in America and Sambo in Russia, to name but a few, and global superstars in the world of MMA like Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko and Kazushi Sakuraba were very much borne from these disciplines. The lack of a combat sport engrained within our education system has also contributed. Wrestling in American high schools and colleges has nurtured numerous finely tuned athletes that have pursued MMA as their career path utilising their wrestling as a solid base for the rigours of modern day multi-dimensional martial arts competition.

However, this month's UFC Fight Night 37 - Gustafsson vs. Manuwa - was aired not just on the paid for BT Sport channel (the UK's home of all live UFC events), but on terrestrial TV too in the form of Channel 5, where it peaked with 981,700 viewers. This was part of a wider TV deal where the station will broadcast European and Middle Eastern-hosted UFC events in 2014, and is the culmination of year long negotiations that White intimated to last February ahead of Wembley Arena's UFC on Fuel TV: Barao vs. McDonald event. Whilst Channel 5's production and marketing around UFC events needs to improve immeasurably, such a commercial agreement should help propel MMA's standing with the UK public. I'm sure ex-Manchester City CEO and current UFC executive vice-president and EMEA managing director Garry Cook will be working on their partnership to ensure the criticism of MMA that plagued the sport in the mid-nineties across the pond will be addressed through educative and informative coverage, taking the necessary steps in raising the profile of MMA in the UK.