In a recent interview with USA Today, boxing promoter Bob Arum predicted limited success for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the promotion company that hosts most mixed martial arts (MMA) events, due to what he sees as its inability to draw in viewers from growing demographics, including Latinos and African Americans. In some ways, his comment could make sense. After all, the sport boasts among their fighters people like Toni Valtonen, a Finnish fighter with a swastika and “White Power” tattoos across his back.
However, the same sport that Arum claims is for “a tattooed, skinhead white guy who enjoys watching similar-looking, untalented individuals” is experiencing unprecedented growth, and its increased viewership is being led by one of the very audiences Arum thought the UFC would never be able to attract: Latinos.
For a sport that caters primarily to the male 18-34 demographic, Latinos, who make up 20% of this audience, represent a key portion of UFC’s viewership. In fact, recent Simmons data show that they are even more enthusiastic about the UFC than their non-Latino counterparts, with 37% of Latino males 18-34 saying they are “very interested” in the UFC, compared to 23% of non-Latino males in the same age group. Latino males 18-34 are also more involved fans of the sport and are 25% more likely to say they view UFC fights on pay-per-view than non-Latinos.
The networks are certainly taking note. In February of last year, the UFC announced that it would begin broadcasting its pay-per-view events in Spanish. This year, MTV Tr3s jumped on the bandwagon, signing a deal to broadcast the fight promotion Bellator’s fourth season starting March 6. Bellator has several fighters of Latino heritage: Eddie Alvarez, Hector Lombard, Jose Vega, Jessica Aguilar, Nazareno “Naza” Malegaire, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, Wilson Reis, Lyman Goodman, Chris Lozano, and Daniel Gracie, among others. Strikeforce, another MMA promotion company, also boasts several Latino fighters, including Nick Diaz and Gilbert Melendez, otherwise known as “El Niño.”
The UFC also has a growing number of Latino fighters, including Kenny Florian, Tito Ortiz, Diego Sanchez, and Miguel Angel Torres, and, most importantly, the current heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez.
MMA is one of the few sports that allows for some level of self-expression among its participants, and fighters are taking advantage of this freedom to express their Latino identities. Velasquez, for example, who was born in California to Mexican parents and speaks fluent Spanish and English, is being promoted as the “first Mexican heavyweight champion” and heavily leverages his Latino heritage in his promotion both in Hispanic and general market media outlets. Probably most notably, Velasquez carries a huge “Brown Pride” tattoo across his chest.
This all spells out great opportunities for marketers looking to reach the growing Latino male audience. MMA has yet to fully monetize the sport through sponsorships and fighter spokesperson deals, but Velasquez is already taking advantage of his growing fame, appearing in advertising for Lugz shoes. And the UFC is starting to make in-roads with sponsors, with Budweiser, Harley Davidson, and Boost Mobile all signing on as sponsors in the past couple of years. However, the majority of sponsorships still tend to come from smaller companies, many of whom can sponsor a fighter for just a few thousand dollars, and many fighters still rely on these smaller sponsors for their paycheck.
Latinos are taking MMA by storm. And it makes sense. Mexico, where many of the Latino MMA fighters come from, has a long and storied history with both freestyle wrestling (lucha libre) and boxing. Many of the same Latinos who followed boxing and wrestling in Latin America and have followed boxing in the United States are now giving more of their time and attention to MMA, especially given its availability not only on pay-per-view and premium channels, but also on regular cable networks like Spike, Versus, ESPN Deportes and MTV Tr3s.
So, Mr. Arum, you might want to pay attention.