“You take four [street] corners anywhere. On one corner they’re playing soccer. On the second corner they’re playing basketball. On the third corner they’re playing street hockey. On the fourth corner a fight breaks out. Where does the crowd go?
They go to watch the fight. The guys that are even playing the other sports will stop playing those sports and run over and watch the fight. It’s human nature. It’s in our DNA.”
The above is one of the most famous quotes from Dana White, the man who is now one of the most visible executives of any professional sports league.
As president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, White uttered these words in 2009, explaining that while the UFC may not yet have the cachet of an NBA, NFL, or European football leagues, the takeover of mixed martial arts (MMA) is inevitable.
Whether White’s prediction comes true remains to be seen, but certainly the sport of MMA has surged in popularity over the last decade.
According to a 2012 report from Sports Business Daily, 67.4% of males aged 18-34 and 48.7% of males between 35-54 consider themselves MMA fans. A story from popular MMA blog Bloody Elbow indicates there are 300 million MMA fans worldwide, placing it ahead of Major League Baseball.
DraftKings (successfully) enters the fray
Attempting to capitalize on this growth, DraftKings expanded into the MMA vertical when it launched with its first DFS offering at UFC 182 on January 3.
Simultaneously, it signed a deal with headliner and UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who successfully defended his title against Daniel Cormier (albeit not without controversy – Jones was found subsequently to have tested positive for cocaine metabolites in his system).
DraftKings’ debut was certainly a success. Their flagship event, the “100k Ground & Pound” drew 444 entries for a $200 buy-in, although the site guaranteed a $100000 prize pool. At the $27 buy-in level, the “$50k Takedown” maxed out at 2100 entries.
But while DraftKings is the first DFS heavy hitter to enter the MMA market, they were not the first in the sphere.
Back in 2012, jiujitsu black belts Aaron Ard and Brian Knapp founded Kountermove, the first to offer daily fantasy MMA. Kountermove serves the hardcore MMA fan base, and combat sports are its only fantasy offering.
In addition to UFC contests, Kountermove also offers contests for Bellator Fighting Championship, Glory Kickboxing, Metamoris Jiu-Jitsu, and other niche events for the combat sports enthusiast.
David vs Goliath rewritten as a win-win?
In the UFC’s early days, the league bragged about its lack of rules and weight classes. 460-pound sumo wrestlers and 250-pound street fighters would compete against 170-pound jiujitsu stylists.
The infancy of daily fantasy MMA seems to reflect a similar mismatch, featuring the heavyweight DraftKings versus the highly specialized but relatively undersized Kountermove.
However, Ard shrugs off the idea that Kountermove’s players will be gobbled up by its larger competitor.
Ard is quick to note that UFC 182 – DraftKings debut weekend – was Kountermove’s best event ever, with 30% more action than any previous contest.
He believes that DraftKings will in fact help to expand the overall market, stating that “the entrance of [DraftKings] into fantasy MMA will help grow the overall market to hundreds of thousands of players in the next 12 months, and eventually millions of players.”
Bigger, but how big?
DraftKings’ Director of Customer Experience, Jonathan Aguiar, is not as willing to make such a bold prediction. Aguiar’s guess is that “maybe 20-30% of [18-35 year-old males] would try DFS MMA at some point.”
Aguiar continued that, in his view, MMA has the potential to be at best the fourth-largest DFS sport.
But Ard understandably has a more bullish outlook, stating, “we don’t see any reason why in a few years that fantasy for combat sports doesn’t meet and then exceed the market size of fantasy football DFS today.”
Educating the MMA player
Both Ard and Aguiar agree that there is an education process necessary before the MMA market can expand. However, the two sites vary in their challenges.
While DraftKings has a plethora of experienced DFS players who need to be educated about MMA, Kountermove has knowledgeable MMA fans who need to be educated about DFS. Both sites have used both written and video content, as well as social media, to gain players.
“MMA has a lower barrier to entry than a sport like basketball for example,” states Aguiar.
“In the NBA there is a lot of information beyond the relative skill of the players such as how many minutes they’ll play on a given night. In MMA more of the skill is constructing a roster with the appropriate level of variance to the game type you are playing and breaking down fighter styles to get maximum points.”
Thus, Aguiar argues, the typical MMA fan should have an advantage over the DFS “grinder” when it comes to DraftKings’ latest offering.
Would FanDuel’s entrance grow the market?
Whether Ard’s optimistic prediction or Aguiar’s more conservative one comes true, the growth trajectory for MMA in DFS looks strong:
- The UFC plans 45 events in 2015. Five years ago in 2010, they offered just 24 events.
- MMA ignores weather and seasons.
- MMA seems to have greater reach across cultures and borders than sports like football or baseball.
Conspicuously, FanDuel, the market share leader in the daily fantasy sphere, has made no mention of offering an MMA product. (E-mails sent to FanDuel requesting comment went unanswered as of this writing.)
One can only assume that they are keeping their cards close to the vest and are already working on MMA. Will a third entrant grow the market even further?
There are reasons to believe the answer is yes:
- While DFS players have likely heard of MMA, there still likely exists an untapped market of MMA fans who don’t quite grasp DFS.
- MMA does not have the fantasy legacy of other sports. In Ard’s words, “fantasy MMA…is very early in the lifecycle of development / maturity, because there was no mainstream, pre-existing fantasy market as there was with fantasy football and baseball for well over a decade.”
- Meanwhile, Kountermove will continue appealing to its hardcore user base via word of mouth and relying on MMA YouTube celebrities who go by aliases like “Tommy Toe Hold” and “Renato Laranja”.
- At the same time, DraftKings continues to be a sponsorship and advertising juggernaut and will look to point its existing user base towards MMA, while simultaneously using superstars like Jones to drive newcomers to daily fantasy.
In the end, the UFC eventually did introduce weight classes, and it now boasts ten different champions ranging from 115 to 265 pounds.
If the MMA pie continues to grow, there may be room for champions across multiple weight classes in the daily fantasy realm as well.
Image credit: A_Lesik / Shutterstock.com.