The UFC 200 hangover hasn't fully lifted, and if you're a high roller in Vegas, perhaps even an intravenous saline drip was administered in your hotel room. But despite multiple headliner changes, the event went off as a smashing success, and the celebratory atmosphere was appreciable throughout a fight card stacked from top to bottom with many of the sport's most notable athletes.
With the milestone event now in the books, let's try to imagine what the next big one will look like. Whether it's UFC 250 estimated for the summer of 2020, or UFC 300 around the year 2024, let's consider the landscape of MMA and how the world's biggest fight promotion will change in the years to come.
What started out like a circus built to show cage fights for the first time has since become a well-oiled machine for MMA competition that every sports fan immediately recognizes. The days of constantly changing rules, battling regulatory bodies, and all manner of difficulties with media and live broadcasts are long gone. The slick packaging of UFC programming now includes desk analysts with pre and post-fight shows, and a wide variety of supporting media specific to fighters, events, or general MMA trends.
But how individual fights are organized hasn't changed much since the elimination of tournaments in the early years, and there continues to be very little organization around the athletes themselves outside of divisions and rankings. Matches are made almost entirely as one-offs, with the rare exception being a title-eliminator bout between two potential challengers, the winner of which advances. Yet as the sport solidifies in mainstream culture, the best practices of established leagues like the NFL and NBA will work their way into the UFC.
The most valuable aspect of league sports is the idea of playoffs. Any game that carries implications beyond the here and now is inherently more valuable and interesting than a simple exhibition of the sport. Tournaments and playoff games attract more eyeballs (and ultimately more money), and should be leveraged in the future of the UFC. Rankings are already the basis for seeding, and potential regional circuits within the UFC umbrella will allow for the necessary volume of bouts and a streamlined path to the top of the sport's pyramid. The possibility of fight clubs drafting new talent from the wider pool would make for fun future draft coverage.
Grand Prix style seasons for a select division will then pair the best 16 fighters to work towards the title. There's a vast pool of complexities and possible structures, but certainly a robust sports promotion will be able to organize a competition structure that maximizes fan anticipation and helps organize the sport for better digestion by the larger masses.
Since UFC 100, numerous smaller weight classes have been added, as well as the previously unthinkable addition of women's divisions. In a fitting twist, UFC 200 ended up being headlined by female athletes, which was in fact the case for two consecutive fight cards during the UFC's biggest week of events. There's not much more room to go for men in the UFC, as a strawweight division for 115 pounds is unlikely. If anything, athletes are getting bigger and MMA in particular is drawing from a deeper talent pool, so it's more likely than an existing division like heavyweight could be split into two.
But women have plenty of space to grow, the most obvious being a flyweight division in between the current strawweights and bantamweights. The hesitancy of adding women's divisions has been the perceived lack of depth. But the rise and recent fall of Ronda Rousey has cemented her division's popularity and proven that stars will emerge even when one falls out of the sky. And the growing popularity of the sport will only attract even more.
Currently totaling 10, the upper limit of total divisions in the UFC won't be much more (perhaps 13), but each division means one more champion to help anchor the promotion of fight cards, and several additional title fights per year. The next milestone UFC event will have more talent than ever before to draw off, and could even fill an entire main card with title fights.
Despite a recent drought for Brazil and championship belts, two Brazilians, both underdogs, took gold home from UFC 200. Brazil has always been the origin of the sport and also the "old country" for the UFC's original founders. But not only did Europe get their first champion just recently, they now have three active title holders, further boosting the ceiling for the European combat sports market.
Asia remains the next big thing for MMA, which will require displacing local martial arts styles fueling a thriving fight sports industry that is ripe for consolidation and scaled up management. In the next few years this market will mature and embrace standardized Mixed Martial Arts, and a bold move to create international feeder leagues for the UFC will leverage the abundance of regional talent and interest in fighting there.
Emergence of the feeder league structure is unlikely to emerge by UFC 250, but possibly by UFC 300. Once mature, Super Bowl style UFC events will then bring each region's best to compete against each other, allowing for some level of geographic fan loyalty and a nearly Olympic level of international competition.
Having turned their $2 million gamble on MMA into a $4 billion exit valuation, the Fertitta brothers and Dana White dovetailed the sale of the business with the UFC 200 weekend. They recently achieved several major regulatory milestones with the introduction of comprehensive drug testing, fighter health insurance, and finally the legalization of professional MMA in the state of New York, overcoming the last remaining hurdles to maximizing their stability and minimizing long-term risk. The time was right for the Fertitta's to cash out and move on, and the sale will go down as the biggest in sports history.
The leading men will of course have to stay involved through any ownership transition, as the brain trust of Lorenzo Fertitta, Dana White, and matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby have climbed an enormous experience curve that will be critical to the successful management of a full blown international organization. But external parties will surely have an investment thesis to justify these multiples, which will likely have an international flavor. The current leadership has proven the UFC platform in the US, but is constrained in replicating the structure in a repeatable and sustainable way overseas, with additional risk of brand dilution running too many secondary events under the UFC name. A giant cash infusion could change all that, providing the capital necessary to fully build out what might be UFC Asia, UFC Oceana, UFC Euro, etc.
Dana White has long referred to becoming "the NFL of MMA," and that goal is closer than ever. But as many have pointed out, the volatile behavior of White would be in sharp contrast to the NFL's corporate leadership, so while the near-term changes will be slight, the long-term evolution of the company will be significant when it transfers leadership to a new president for the first time in decades. Ideally, a number of retired fighters will grow into leadership roles in the UFC, which will improve upon any potential tradeoffs that may put athlete priorities in second place. And if the UFC truly becomes what it dreamed of, it will have to consider a fighter's Union as part of that transformation.
FightMetric has made statistics an increasingly important part of MMA coverage, and they will continue to lead the implementation of data capture and presentation for the UFC. Last year's addition of motion tracking cameras has escalated discrete counting statistics to new levels of details that capture one of last remaining elements of how fights are fought.
The final holdout is measuring strikes directly. Imagine that when a key punch is landed, fans immediately see how fast the thrown punch was, similar to a fastball's speed shown during Major League Baseball games. This has been a pipedream for a long time due to the conundrum of collecting such specific data without interfering with the athletes themselves. But a company called Hykso has recently productized glove sensors small enough to fit in the back of glove linings that can measure the type, accuracy, and speed of each punch thrown.
Very soon, not only will casual boxing and martial arts enthusiasts be using these in gyms around the world for daily training, but professionals will be wearing these sensors and potentially other biometric sensors for things like heart rate, and fans will see even more detailed information and stats on screen during live fights. We'll know more information about strikes and conditioning than ever before, which is useful not just for athletes, but also regulatory commissions interested in protecting the safety of athletes.
With the amount of data that will proliferate in gyms around the world, fighters will be closer than ever to standardized ratings in much the same way golfers have a handicap rating, or amateur tennis players and their international ranking. The data and metrics that drive this revolution will also become part of MMA's lexicon as the sport sees full data-driven maturation.
The buzz in the air on fight night is palpable, thanks to UFC's long-perfected ability to create an exciting atmosphere in the arena. The usual elements will all remain, such as the excellent house DJ'ing, ring card girls, and multimedia production parallels through the evening's entertainment. But technology will continue to evolve as it has through the history of the entertainment and sports industries, and the theatrical elements of a live show will benefit from this trend.
Far richer and dynamic visual displays will use an increasing share of the arena itself, while the canvas inside the Octagon could even host video. Imagine a green screen mat that can show different viewers in different countries sponsor logos geared specifically to them, as the audience for UFC events will no doubt be more internationally diverse than ever before. Already, tent pole events are toying with using the walls and roof of a theater to engulf attendees in an immersive environment, and sporting events will eventually adopt this cool new tech.
Legalized sports betting
As with the growing acceptance of other legalized vices, sports gambling is ripe for federal oversight and the tax revenues that come with it. Whether it happens state-to-state or at a national level, it's hard to imagine the US not embracing this already enormous industry. That could open the doors for far more interest on fight night, and plenty of cage side bets being placed in real-time through mobile apps.