Why do people watch mixed martial arts (MMA)?

So a little background about this post: My significant other recently started a blog about his other love – Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Within days of starting his blog, he already had almost three times as many total views as me and two subscribers. I was jealous. Dave, showing pity on me, linked to my blog from photos I had taken at one of his tournaments. A couple of days ago, Dave kindly asked me if anyone had stumbled across my blog through his link. I laughed and said that I did not think his readers had much interest in a blog about recreation ecology. Kidding, I added that I should write a blog post about the science of jiu-jitsu and then maybe I would get as many site visits as he does.

Dave competing in a jiu-jitsu tournament in Boise, Idaho

Three days later: I am daydreaming in my lab and realize that, technically, jiu-jitsu is a form of recreation (it just does not happen to take place outside).  Out of curiosity I decided to do a Google Scholar search to see what I found when I used the terms “jiu-jitsu recreation science”. Nothing. Next, I searched “jiu-jitsu science”.  A few books about jiu-jitsu showed up, a couple of articles examining the use of mouth guards in combat sports, a paper about the types of eye injuries which occur in martial arts (from a journal appropriately named “Eye”), and a paper about static stretching and how that influences the amount of weight someone training in jiu-jitsu can bench press (??).  Finally, something somewhat interesting and even semi-related to my field appeared: “An Analysis of Spectator Motives in Individual Contact Sports: A Study of Mixed Martial Arts Fans.”

So how does this article relate to jiu-jitsu? And more of a stretch, how in the world does it relate to the study of outdoor recreation?  Well, mixed martial arts (MMA) is a fairly new, increasingly popular combat sport that combines elements of jiu-jitsu as well as other disciplines (such as boxing and wrestling).  Dave would make a distinction between jiu-jitsu for MMA and sport jiu-jitsu (which you can read about here). But the bottom line is, jiu-jitsu is one of many disciplines used in MMA. In terms of how this article relates at all to what I do – motives are frequently studied in the field of outdoor recreation; I care why people are recreating just like these people care why people are spectating. I use the exact same methods as the MMA researchers but my audience is just a bit different.

UFC Event: Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin (two of the only fighters whose names I can regularly remember)

Now to the science:  To figure out why people watch MMA events, the researchers went to an MMA event in the Midwest and surveyed spectators.  The spectators were asked about their motivation for spectating at the event (they rated a list of ten motivations from most important to least important). Motives included, but were not limited to, sport interest, drama, social interaction, national pride, etc.  Spectators were also asked how they receive information about MMA , their experience with MMA events, and their preferences for MMA events.

Who is watching MMA? Over 200 people took the survey. Most spectators were young (18 to 24 years of age) males.  The researchers assumed that part of the reason the audience was mostly males was because television advertisers mostly target men with their marketing techniques (such as by including scantily clad women in their ads). The researchers were surprised, since common stereotypes imply that MMA attracts “low-class” fans, to find that over 75% of the spectators had at least a high-school diploma and almost 90% had incomes greater than $50,000.

How do people find out about MMA events?  Most people reported learning about the event by word of mouth.  In other words, their friends or family told them about the events.  Additionally, many people learned about MMA from TV (most likely Spike’s Ultimate Fighter series).

Why do people attend MMA events? Overwhelmingly, the reason was for “sport interest”.  The spectators are simply fans of the sport of MMA.  Spectators also reported being motivated by the drama and aesthetics of the sport; aesthetics not meaning how attractive the fighters are, but an appreciation for the technique required in the sport. Despite what people may think, violence was the 5th (out of ten) top motivation for watching MMA (someone should show this study to a certain local restaurant/sports bar who will not show MMA because they think “it could induce fighting” in their bar). People also preferred to watch the lighter weight classes; probably because these emphasis technique more so than brute strength.

Why do women attend MMA events?   Even though the spectators at this event were mostly male, about 25% of the people who completed the survey were women.  For women, the most important motive was not sports interest, but drama and aesthetics (again, not how hot they think the fighters are but how skilled the fighters are). So overall, women were there more because of the drama of an evenly matched fight than because they are a fan of MMA. Women were also interested in the social aspects of the event and, like men, ranked violence as their 5th top motivation.

So What? Why would someone get money to study why people are at an MMA event? Well the paper was published in a journal called “Sport Marketing Quarterly” back in 2008. The whole point of their study was to be able to make recommendations to the people who market MMA events.  For example, the researchers recommended that since both men and women are motivated by the drama of the fights – event coordinators should attempt to set up fights that are relatively evenly matched.  Additionally, they suggested that since spectators are interested in the technique of the sport that marketers should educate their audience about the different fight styles (such as jiu-jitsu) and unique aspects of the sport.

I think that one of the more important findings from this study is that although MMA is a violent activity for the fighters, violence is not one of the top motivations for spectating MMA events.  When the UFC and MMA began in the early 90s, there were no rules and pretty much anything was allowed except biting and eye-gouging. The “no rules” character of the sport was heavily emphasized by marketers at the time which resulted in a backlash from critics stating that the sport was “barbaric”.  In the late 90s early 2000s, the sport reinvented itself by introducing rules and weight divisions. The introduction of rules and divisions has potentially led to a change in public perception about the sport and caused the rapid increase in popularity that the MMA has seen in recent years.

What are my motives to watch MMA?  Definitely not the violence, I get a little freaked out if there is too much bleeding going on in the cage. My motives are similar to those individuals in the study. I appreciate and enjoy the skill, technique, and level of training needed to succeed in the sport. Also, anytime I am watching MMA, I am usually with Dave and therefore there is social aspect to the activity that I enjoy. And besides, what girlfriend does not take on at least some level of involvement in their significant other’s hobbies and interests. If Dave can listen to me drone on about the awesome new yarn that I bought and run a 5K with me to make up for missing my marathon, I can watch a few fights a month. And in all honestly, I actually enjoy MMA (especially since I can knit while I watch!).

T-shirt from Snorg Tees


Kim et al. (2008) An analysis of spectator motives in an individual combat sport: A study of mixed martial arts fans. Sports Marketing Quarterly, 17, pp. 109-119.


7 thoughts on “Why do people watch mixed martial arts (MMA)?

  1. Pingback: Brutish Spectators | Logan Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Blog

  2. If you’re interested in that topic, it might be of interest doing some kind of comparative study between American MMA fans and Japanese MMA fans, as the latter group has long been seen as far more sophisticated. It would be intriguing to see if those distinctions have started to break down over the years, perhaps with Japan turning up the volume and level of obnoxiousness, while the US starts to turn it down (no idea if that’s actually happening: could well be Japanese audiences are still completely quiet when watching MMA events).

    I periodically scan through the online academic journal sites, like JSTOR, to see if there is anything on jiu jitsu and MMA. Rare that something comes up, although there is a fair bit on judo (probably unsurprisingly, given Kano’s background).

    Which is a shame, as I think there are a number of aspects to both sports which would be worthy of academic study. I guess that’s mostly from a sociological and historical perspective: e.g., the revisionist history of MMA, around what’s commonly known as ‘the Zuffa Myth’, which claims that the UFC was always running from regulation. Not true at all: rules, weight categories etc for MMA were codified long before Zuffa got involved, by people like John Perretti and Jeff Blatnick. However, Dana White has been very successful in getting across his version of events.

    The same is true of jiu jitsu, where you have a battle going on to claim not only the history of BJJ, but the ‘real’ Gracie jiu jitsu, mostly between the descendents of Carlos and Helio Gracie, who are the two most famous names from the original five Gracie brothers (they’re the eldest and youngest, respectively). Adding to that complexity, the three other brothers, Oswaldo, Gastao Jr and George, are frequently ignored. Then there are whole other non-Gracie lines, like Luis Franca > Oswaldo Fadda. Lots of fun stuff. 😀

    • Thanks for the interesting research topic suggestions! I had no idea that there were potential, cultural differences between MMA spectators. I agree that there are plenty of interesting topics of research related to jiu jitsu and MMA. I was actually really surprised to see so few research articles there are – especially since the field of leisure science seems to study just about anything that people do in their free time (disc golf, collecting, how gangs influence recreation behavior?). Again, thanks for the insight on the topic.

      • No probs: I’d suggest picking up an old PrideFC DVD, as that demonstrates how quiet those Japanese audiences were. Or indeed taking a look on YouTube or somewhere, as I imagine at least a few of the old fights are up online. The early Sakuraba matches were especially good, like his super-technical battles with Carlos Newton, Allan Goes and Vernon ‘Tiger’ White.

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: The Issue of Time | Logan Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Blog

  4. Pingback: Why are people drawn to MMA? | enlighten wonder-filled jin

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