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Are pro-wrestling fans ‘graduating’ to MMA?
Published July 7th, 2008

By Zach Arnold

On this web site in June of 2008, we discussed an interesting topic regarding the ongoing divide in MMA circles involving those who come from the world of professional wrestling and those who have backgrounds in more traditional sports (like boxing). One of the major reasons for this growing divide involves the decline of professional wrestling.

What does professional wrestling have to do with the growth of MMA in Japan and North America? Think: demographics.

It’s no secret that older pro-wrestling fans are getting frustrated with the current product being produced today on a large scale in the professional wrestling business. Some of these fans simply have given up entirely on pro-wrestling, while others are holding out hope that one day things will get better. In the meantime, MMA is becoming a perfectly fine ‘substitute’ for professional wrestling in the eyes of some fans… and these fans happen to fall in the 18-34 year old demographic, which marketers desperately covet.

Simply put, MMA is delivering what pro-wrestling currently isn’t. Big personalities, big names, marquee match-ups, and a sense of credibility & reality that isn’t insulting anyone’s intelligence (unlike pro-wrestling’s current product). It’s a simple formula – two people want to fight each other, you have a fight, and there’s a winner and there’s a loser. How much easier can it get?

While pro-wrestling continues to suffer from a stigmatism that its fans are from the low-income side of the tracks, MMA is gaining a reputation (accurately or not) of having a more affluent fan base than other combat sports.

Robert Joyner of MMAPayout.com disputes this current notion, much to the chagrin of UFC President Dana White who recently claimed that the average income of a UFC fan was over $70,000.

“That $70,000 number is fictitious in my book. It’s a ploy to sell themselves as an avenue for higher-end advertisers; if that were the case, we wouldn’t be seeing the same video game, movie, and fast-food ads. If you make 70k a year, you aren’t into Mickey’s, which was a sponsor until just recently. I don’t think that MMA generally attracts high-rollers, not in the usual Las Vegas-sense. If they were attracting the high-rollers you would be seeing big site fees to host the UFC cards and the gates for the UFC cards being twice what they are now.

Sure, you will not see the big-league high-rollers at MMA events like you will see at big boxing fights, but the gap is narrowing in a hurry thanks to some of the incredible action you can get at various sportsbooks on many big-name fights.

Veteran professional wrestling promoter Sheldon Goldberg believes that MMA has had an impact on the pro-wrestling business, but to what extent is up for debate.

“I do think that MMA is giving wrestling fans a product they can believe in and as young fans mature, I can see them being captivated by the real sport aspect of MMA.”

So, what about White’s assertion that UFC is attracting affluent fight fans?

“I think those fans are the ones who are deserting boxing, as opposed to being wrestling fans.”

Todd Martin, a writer for MMAPayout.com and CBS Sports, believes what White is selling.

“Having attended dozens of pro wrestling events and dozens of MMA events, I think that the MMA base is generally more affluent in this country. You can see it in the way people dress and are groomed. This also makes intuitive sense because WWE has put on programming that is frequently very insulting to the audience’s intelligence.”

With more and more professional wrestling fans moving away towards MMA, it has created some problems for promotions like WWE. Despite the fact that WWE is a cash cow, remains a cash cow, and always will be a cash cow thanks to its corporate structure, the product is currently enduring a mixture of growing pains and outright staleness. With MMA (specifically UFC) undergoing a large boom period currently in the fight business, pro-wrestling is facing an enormous challenge in not only generating new fans but keeping older ones as well… as in those who fall into MMA’s 18-34 year old demographic category.

A big question facing the pro-wrestling industry is whether or not the business can fully recover from some of the heavy hits it has taken over the last decade.

“The key way to reclaiming the wayward wrestling fans is to emphasize their strengths, which is the charismatic nature of their performers,” claims Mr. Joyner. “MMA has a few guys in this vein, with Rampage (Jackson) being the best example. But, by and large, that is a weakness of MMA performers. When the WWE does a better job of finding and promoting these charismatic guys, that is when you will see a swing of the pendulum back to pro-wrestling.”

“It’s going to be tough, because I think pro wrestling may have reached the point of no return,” concludes Mr. Martin. “It was definitely possible for pro-wrestling to retain its audience even as UFC rose in popularity, but it has already lost so many of those people. Now that they have already left, it is going to be much harder to get them to come back. Still, I think that pro-wrestling could attract some fans back with more serious, thought-out storylines and an increased focus on the importance of match results.”

Will newly-converted MMA fans with pro-wrestling backgrounds actually go back to watching a product that looks and feels, well, fake? After all, UFC likes to market itself with the tag line, “As real as it gets.”

“Pro wrestling isn’t going away,” exclaims Mr. Goldberg. “It’s just that the things that made pro wrestling effective, like building up matches, are being done better in MMA now than in WWE or TNA.”

Until someone in WWE figures out how to get back old pro-wrestling fans, UFC and other MMA promoters will gladly continue cashing in on the angst that so many wrestling fans currently suffer from about a business that they once loved.

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November 20, 2008
08:51:43 AM

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