The Digital Transformation of Combat Sports Marketing

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Every industry that developed alongside the internet has benefited from digital marketing, including today’s combat sports. While the WWE enjoyed a lot of mainstream success in the ‘90s, more fierce combat sports like MMA were still in their infancy. Now the UFC is a powerhouse industry, and it owes a lot of it to their digital marketing strategy.

Combat Sports on the Internet

Any MMA fan knows that the UFC started out of a half-filled sports arena, broadcast to less than 100,000 people. Since then, the championship has become the biggest combat sports promotion in the world with $11.3 billion recorded revenue for 2023. It owes a lot of its 2010s success to the streaming boom, where live fights became very popular online.

Needless to say, the internet leveled up pretty much every industry it came into contact with. That includes the markets surrounding combat sports, which became more easily accessible through websites and downloadable apps. For a modern example, check out the McGregor vs Chandler betting market ahead of UFC 303 where McGregor is the favorite to win with -110 odds. For the most engaged fans, betting on MMA matchups has become a way to show their support for their favorite fighters. Beside access to fights and betting markets, the internet also paved the way for viral marketing. Every knockout punch, spinning kick, and upset submission could be easily documented and posted online by the UFC’s official accounts on YouTube and other social media.

It’s worth mentioning that the UFC was saved by something else before the internet came along. In 2005, the UFC were in dire straits when they decided to launch their The Ultimate Fighter reality series. It was a runaway success that got fans invested in the athletes behind the fights, culminating in Forrest Griffin’s showdown against Stephan Bonnar. The show imbued MMA with the character drama previously displayed by the WWE, except the fights were real and no outcomes had been pre-determined.

Fighters Are Influencers

Influencers are one of the main pillars of digital marketing. They can provide authenticity in online landscapes, where it can be in short supply. They can also bring a product or service to audiences who wouldn’t typically discover them. In the combat sports ecosystem, fighters comfortably settled into an influencer position without even realizing it.

Most savvy fighters have personal social media accounts nowadays, used to air their thoughts about a variety of topics. Naturally, they talk a lot of inside baseball and hype up their upcoming fight appearances. By doing this, they’re creating a unique dynamic not seen anywhere else in influencer marketing. They aren’t paid influencers selling a product, they’re fighters with big egos trying to sell themselves. They get paid by showing up and (hopefully) winning, but they often can’t help talking trash or commenting on other industry events, which only adds to the buzz online.

They’re also very natural. Every fighter’s social media presence differs, in accordance with their ego and the bragging rights they’ve earned through their win/loss record. Not every fighter can or wants to give the commentary found on Jon Jones’ X feed, for example. It has been confirmed that the UFC does push big-name fighters to establish a presence online, though they have a lot of freedom and retain personal use of the account. Demetrious Johnson explained how this works and how it seems to have paid dividends today.

None of this engagement was possible before social media and influencer marketing became popular. The closest comparison is the WWE, who aired carefully scripted storylines that captured broadcast audiences during the Attitude Era. Now, fighters put on a show without scripting, adding an extra layer of unpredictability and controversy to the mix. Both can be great for attracting, and keeping, an audience.