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Michigan State Students Weigh In On Changes In Mixed Martial Arts Interest

Darin Baydoun

We analyze the fandom of MMA during the pandemic. 

EAST LANSING, Mich. - March 11, 2020 will be a day that is remembered as essentially when the whole world stood still.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic on that day, sports, and life in general, had to stop without knowing when it might get started up again.

Not even two months later though, on May 7, the UFC held UFC 248, a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) bout card - the first sporting event held on American soil since the pandemic started.

They took advantage of an opportunity to hold first serve on the entire sports market, but how many more fans did it gain from that? That’s the question we looked to explore on a local level in East Lansing, on the campus of Michigan State University.

Just how much interest was raised among the MSU population in the sport of MMA with the UFC having held regular events on ESPN and ESPN Plus over the past year?

In finding the results, a minimum if 50 students were able to offer their input.

Was this the starting point for people’s MMA love, a welcome return for long-time fans or did it not register at all?

Surprisingly, the answers had more of a consensus than what was expected.

Senior Evan Hardy had already been a fan of MMA and the UFC well before the start of the pandemic. It’s the only sport he watches at all, but even during the pandemic, it didn’t cause him to develop any more of an infatuation with MMA.

“Just for me, since I don’t watch other sports, I didn’t watch UFC more than I typically would,” said Hardy. “I would be willing to bet that other sports fans watched UFC a lot more because sports are always fresh and new and people wanted to see that again.”

Hardy is not completely wrong on that front.

In its first four pay-per-view events during the pandemic, the UFC averaged 1.17 million viewers on ESPN and ESPN Plus.

Junior Ben Buzzell was among the many more casual fans who flocked to watch the UFC when it was the lone sports product available.

“I was semi-interested in it before the pandemic, in that I would watch highlights and some coverage but not follow every match,” said Buzzell. “I did tune in to watch more matches last year than I ever had before.”

Even with those increased viewing habits, Buzzell didn’t become an MMA lifer, saying that his level of interest remained the same even though he watched more events.

That represents the consensus that was mentioned earlier among the students that gave their input.

Not everyone was an MMA or UFC fan pre-pandemic, but the overall majority did participate in watching more events and matches over the past year.

In terms of becoming full-on fans, though, only 22 of the 50 students said that their interest levels in the sport increased during the pandemic.

That number actually includes students who said they were fans of the UFC even before the pandemic started.

Like Hardy, senior Calil Hall had been an MMA fan before the pandemic started. Unlike Hardy, it wasn’t the only sport he watched, and that in turn led Hall to embrace MMA even more than he had before.

“It did increase my interests because, well, it was the only thing on,” said Hall.  “It’s not surprising to see they had more viewers. I would think more people would get to be fans or at least watch if they have nothing else to do.”

There were people, of course, that weren’t ever fight fans to begin with and never got into UFC even during the pandemic.

Sophomore Thomas Chavez is among that number of the students who felt that way last year.

“Before the pandemic, the only fight I ever watched was when (Floyd) Mayweather boxed (Conor) McGregor,” Chavez said. “Other than that, I never really watched any fights.”

Chavez himself is a big NFL fan, and spent more time focusing on the studying up for the 2020 NFL Draft, and then the NBA’s season resuming in Orlando in a social bubble.

“With all that going on, I never had time to get into UFC or MMA,” said Chavez.

Chavez also brought up arguably the most key element for people who didn’t get into watching MMA: the price tag for viewing the pay-per-views.

Considering that most UFC events main card take place on ESPN Plus, fans would need to pay a subscription in order to watch. Not that ESPN never has events be on their regular channels, but the UFC in particular has a become a staple of their streaming service.

That’s not even talking about UFC’s paper view events, which along with a subscription to ESPN Plus, requires you to normally pay $50-$60 for the card.

This is where the closing of restaurants could have really impacted UFC viewership in a negative way. For example, the Buffalo Wild Wings on Albert St.in downtown East Lansing would often broadcast paper view events for its customers, allowing them not to have to buy it at home.

Losing that ability to get a free fight could have turned off the interest of many casual fans who didn’t want to spend every almost every month for a pay-per-view.

Going by the previous viewership numbers that the UFC had once they resumed, that didn’t seem to affect things much if at all in the end. A big reason for that could have been that fans who wanted to watch simply pooled their money together whenever an event was on.

Senior Tyler Weil, another MSU student who prior to the pandemic was a fan of UFC, often watches with his friends and didn’t let anything get in the way of him seeing the biggest fights.

“Every Saturday night, if there is a big name I will watch the entire card, and when the UFC was the only sport on during the pandemic I was watching more than ever” said Weil. “My roommates I had sophomore really got me into the sport, and if there’s a big fight I always want to dedicate time with my friends to watch it.”

It’s not a feeling shared by everyone who gave their input, not even by some fans of MMA whose interest just stayed the same.

On a nationwide level, there’s no doubt that the UFC has become more prominent over the course of the last year.

Being on a major network like ESPN with a fight card happening almost every week should normally result in that, even without the aid of a global pandemic that shuts down all other sports.

Locally, that result hasn’t seemed to resonate as much, at least among those who were willing to talk about their interest in the sport.

For now, there doesn’t seem to be any real threat by MMA to become the most popular sport on Campus.

Sports like football and basketball are likely always going to dominate in a college town.

That could change potentially in the future. Seeing more fighters like bantamweight Mando Gutierrez and welterweight Devin Smyth succeed coming out of East Lansing could also build that following.

Until then, for MMA and UFC fans, they’ll keep watching, and for the rest, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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