Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Next Big Thing-Until Thanksgiving At Least.

The Internet tells me that the black guy whose name I didn't catch clobbered the white guy with the weird haircut to become the UFC champion of whatever geographic entity that pastime claims. UFC (to be accurate, mixed martial arts) is the official new sport of the millenium. ESPN and Sports Illustrated both say so, and they're never wrong.

I am left to ponder the following mystery. Can a sport perish from overexposure before I ever get around to watching it? UFC/MMA/NATO/ASCAP looks like it could. It's not good for business if one's first mega pay-per-view extravaganza that's supposed to mark your breakout into polite society ends in a first round KO. Even the most blood-crazed, drunk male aged 18-34 is capable of dividing several minutes into $50 and coming up with an unhappy answer.

Those of us with itchy remote trigger fingers know UFC, etc. is a happening thing. It's happening 24/7 on the lesser cable channels and the corners of local TV programming that can't be sold to infomercial makers. This does not, to me anyway, look like firm grounds for building a new American sports empire.

Old guys like me are supposed to scoff at new things like UFC. I can't knock the sport-never seen it. But I have been around long enough to see a whole lot of Next Big Things in sports, and what happens to them is never quite what their promoters expect. Many sink without a trace. If they have some appeal, and I'll grant UFC that, they find their own level. My guess is that UFC's level will not cause Bud Selig or David Stern to miss any sleep in the next decade.

By my count, soccer has been the Next Big Thing in American sports four times in the last 40 years. When I was but a lad, Formula One racing was going to be the dominant auto racing format in the U.S. They don't even hold a race here anymore. No one under 40 will believe this, but when Jimmy Carter was president, and even for the first couple years of Reagan's tenure, TENNIS was bigger than anything but pro football.

Even sports that do become huge parts of the American sports mainstream take long, winding roads to that destination. The NBA was going to be the Sport of the 1970s. Pro basketball damn near died in that decade, only to rebound in the next. NASCAR, which I'm sure is a UFC role model, was a very, very strong regional sport for generations before going national in the '90s. And NASCAR's growth has leveled off in recent years. It's popular, but it will never be as popular in Chicago or Los Angeles as it is in Charlotte or Birmingham, Ala.

Hype is a cruel mistress. Tiger Woods spurred a boom in golf interest, but as many a developer in Chapter 11 can tell you, that didn't necessarily translate into an increase in the number of people who play golf. That sport remains hamstrung by the large amounts of money and time needed to pursue it. And now the massive PGA empire rests on Woods' shoulders. God forbid he should catch a cold during the Open.

UFC/MMA advocates point to things they feel guarantee success. It's violent, fast-paced, easy to understand. So is hockey, a sport that's apparently the first U.S. casualty of global warming. Above all, UFC is the sport of Youth-male youth, the demo most prized by advertisers.

Two things about Youth, and I'm not so old I don't remember them first hand. One, it's fickle. Today's craze is tomorrow's "you can't be serious." This fact is why people in the entertainment industry look so stressed out. Worse, Youth ages. By the time the next big UFC PPV event rolls around, many current Youth will be ex-Youths. They will have been replaced by Youths who're looking for their OWN Next Big Thing.

UFC has specific handicaps as well. Let's face it, this is a low-rent endeavor. Many of those youths aren't real fans, they're slumming. It's hard to see a sports empire being built upon the foundation of Spike TV. Then there's the fact that fighters, not the format, make fights. Without marketable personalities, any combat-based sport falls off the table. You can't force-feed the public personalities, either-not without fixing fights. That latter activity drove boxing out of the mainstream in the 1950s, never to return.

People will always pay money to watch other people beat the shit out of each other. It's an eternal, deplorable fact of human existence. So UFC will always be around. But I don't see its champions appearing on Wheaties boxes anytime soon.


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