MMA: Are too many shows watering down the sport?

The popularity of mixed martial arts as a sport and UFC as a brand both have never been higher. In the late ’90s, Arizona Senator John McCain had effectively convinced much of the American populace that MMA was little more than gruesome “human cockfighting.” Just 15-years later, MMA is televised nationally on channels such as Fox and NBC Sports, and UFC video games are created by EA Sports and sold right alongside staples like the Madden NFL franchise in major retailers across the country. During the early aughts, it seemed as if the only people up on MMA were disenfranchised boxing fans and combat sports hobbyists. Now, Dana White and the UFC have somehow managed to penetrate the soccer mom zeitgeist.

But with increased popularity comes newfound criticisms. “Over-saturation,” “watered down,” and “event fatigue” are just three of the terms being thrown around to describe the contemporary mixed martial arts climate. As MMA gets more and more popular, consumers are being greeted with more and more opportunities to watch the sport. More is better, right? Not necessarily, according to many a mixed martial arts fan.

According to fight fans arguing that MMA is becoming watered down due to an overabundance of fight cards, as the number of cards increases, the number of quality fights per card decreases. That is to say, by investing in quantity, mixed martial arts promotions are lessening quality.

There is absolutely no debate that the number of MMA events is rapidly growing. Consider the UFC: in 2009, Dana White’s promotion featured just 20 events. In 2010, that number grew to 24. Then 27 in 2011, 31 in 2012, and 33 in 2013. But as of July 16th of 2014, a little over half way into the calendar year, the UFC has already showcased 25 events—with another 17 events scheduled before the start of 2015. That is a projected 9 additional cards than 2013. To put that in perspective, the only comparable jump in annual events experienced by the UFC occurred between 2005 and 2006, where a 10 card year ballooned into an 18 event calendar.

The modern UFC calendar has morphed into a de facto NFL regular season schedule, only if the NFL scheduled games weekly as opposed to exclusively between Labor Day and early February. Take a look at the completed UFC event timeline for 2014:

  1. January 4: Saffiedine v. Lim
  2. January 15: Rockhold v. Philippou
  3. January 25: Henderson v. Thomson
  4. February 1: Barao v. Faber II
  5. February 15: Machida v. Mousasi
  6. February 22: Rousey v. McMann
  7. March 1: Kim v. Hathaway
  8. March 8: Gustafsson v. Manuwa
  9. March 15: Hendricks v. Lawler
  10. March 23: Shogun v. Henderson 2
  11. April 11: Nogueira v. Nelson
  12. April 16: Bisping v. Kennedy
  13. April 19: Werdum v. Browne
  14. April 26: Jones v. Teixeira
  15. May 10: Brown v. Silva
  16. May 24: Barao v. Dillashaw
  17. May 31: Munoz v. Mousasi
  18. May 31: Miocic v. Maldonado
  19. June 7: Henderson v. Khabilov
  20. June 14: Johnson v. Bagautinov
  21. June 28: Te Huna v. Marquardt
  22. June 28: Swanson v. Stephens
  23. July 5: Weidman v. Machida
  24. July 6: Edgar v. Penn
  25. July 16: Cerrone v. Miller

What once was considered destination television, the UFC has snowballed into a sport readily available at least three times every month. The question remains: is thisMMA evolution or devolution?

Jul 16, 2014; Atlantic City, NJ, USA; Jim Miller grimaces after taking a low blow during a 5-round lightweight bout at Revel Casino. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Given the UFC’s artful stranglehold, regrettably no pun intended, on the sport of mixed martial arts, it is easy to forget that MMA is the name of the sport—not UFC. The UFC is not the only MMA promotion that has had a busy 2014. Take a look at the World Series of Fighting’s 2014 calendar to date:

  1. January 18: Gaethje v. Patishnock
  2. February 21: Ford v. Powell
  3. March 29: Carl v. Palhares
  4. June 7: Loiseau v. Lewis
  5. June 21: Branch v. Taylor
  6. July 5: Gaethje v. Newell

Six fight cards in seven months is far from a blip on an MMA fan’s radar. And Bellator, a third rival promotion, has been equally ever-present thus far in 2014. Have a look at Bellator’s year to date:

  1. February 28: Bellator CX
  2. March 7: Bellator CXI
  3.  March 14: Bellator CXII
  4. March 21: Bellator CXIII
  5. March 28: Bellator CXIV
  6. April 4: Bellator CXV
  7. April 11: Bellator CXVI
  8. April 18: Bellator CXVII
  9. May 2: Bellator CXVIII
  10. May 9: Bellator CXIX
  11. May 17: Bellator 120

MMA fans have had at least 42 different opportunities to consume MMA cards in 2014, not counting a myriad of other promotions offering up a number of intriguing cards. So, are 25 UFC events as of July 17 too many? What about 6 WSOF cards? Or 11 Bellator schedulings? How much is too much before MMA events become watered down?

Truth be told, I don’t believe for a second that Dana White and Frank & Lorenzo Fertitta care all that much about allegations of watered down cards right now. On the one hand, the UFC might be coming off its best event of the year—Fight Night Atlantic City, occurring on a a random Wednesday night broadcast on Fox Sports 1 headlined by fighters ranked just 6th and 7th in their division. It’s hard to argue over-saturation when Wednesday night cards on cable during the dog days of Summer blow up Twitter. But even assuming for the sake of argument that card quality has taken a substantial hit due to the increase in scheduled events, why should Zuffa LLC and the UFC at large even care?

If you are an MMA fan sophisticated enough to be performing historic comparative analyses and questioning the overall quality of cards, then the UFC already has you locked in. You are already a fan for life. A couple of less than stellar cards are not going to stop you from watching UFC events on Fox, buying or pirating its pay-per-views, or investing in its merchandise. You are more than welcome to complain about undercard competitiveness on the Internet, but at the end of the day, you will be watching every Fight Night main event and more often than not watching every moment of every pay-per-view.

 MMA promotions have quickly realized that the easiest way to grow the sport is to make it easily accessible and consistently available for the public.

Mixed Martial Arts is in growth mode right now. And while a UFC event every week might not seem ideal for longtime fans of the sport, flooding the national market of prospective American consumers with mixed martial arts is a surefire path for increased fandom. MMA promotions have quickly realized that the easiest way to grow the sport is to make it easily accessible and consistently available for the public.

This is why you only get three days to recover from an epic Jim Miller-Donald Cerrone main event before UFC Fight Night McGregor v. Brandao, Saturday the 19th of July from Dublin, Ireland. As the UFC accumulates an influx of new European fans this weekend, over-saturation is going to be the last thing on the promotion’s mind.