Germany is a difficult market for the UFC. Last weekend’s event in Berlin’s O2 World Arena was full to capacity and featured a particularly emphatic women’s straw weight title defense, but German fans were vocally unsatisfied with the card’s lack of star power and the inability of the UFC to capitalize on a German court ruling reversing the TV ban.
UFC Vice-President David Allen told reporters in Berlin that the UFC would have the broadcasting issues cleared up very soon. “The ink is dry,” he said. It’s a series of technical and production issues now—like finding commentators who won’t stink up the place—and not negotiations with German providers RTL, Sky Deutschland and Sport1 nor regulatory issues with the German government. But the TV ban was lifted in January, giving the parties just under six months to figure it out. German fans had to make due with Fight Pass, which irked some due to the streaming service’s recent moves away from live fights and toward archived material, Embedded, and other content.
Getting onto television is a critical step in any market. Right now most Germans are not quite sure what MMA is and fans of the fight game are drawn to kickboxing and Muay Thai, both of which are very popular and filled with world-class German competitors. The German MMA site Groundandpound put together an interesting study last August analyzing the terms used to describe MMA in German media. The study found the use of negative terms had fallen dramatically since the first UFC event in Cologne in 2009. Journalists had also become more knowledgable, referring to the sport as mixed martial arts and not cage fighting or free fighting.
It’s clear the sport is gaining traction in Germany. There are more fans, more media, more fighters and now two events in two years. But when asked about staging another event in Germany next year, Allen was much less enthusiastic than Gary Cook was back in 2014 following the Munoz-Mousasi card in Berlin.
There are very strong regulatory and cultural barriers to the sport in Germany. Full-contact sports are not as popular here as they are in other countries. It’s not just due to history. Germans have a certain cultural superiority complex that manifests itself in different ways, one of them being a slight aversion to the fighting sports and another being a very cautious approach to certain US-based cultural products.
But cultural snootiness is not strong enough anywhere, even Germany, to trump business. Despite the court ruling last January, there seems to be no enough incentive for major broadcasters and government bodies (and the UFC for that matter) to push through a deal and make it happen. There was a clear deadline/opportunity with UFC 69 and yet no roll out. Perhaps German partners are balking at what they might characterize as an overly optimistic assessment of the German market by the UFC. Boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai and the WWE have strong followings and there might not be enough evidence of a strong crossover effect to convince Germans to leap on board.
Or it’s just basic Teutonic caution; the careful, meticulous bureaucracy at work in a world where 40 hour weeks with no vacation are just not the norm.
One glaring obstacle to the sport’s progress in Germany is the lack of any German stars. Many of the MMA fighters representing Germany are not ethnically German—Nick Hein being one notable exception—and although Germany is rather well-integrated multicultural society, it makes a difference when it comes to drawing in more market share, selling tickets across the country, and getting a larger chunk of the population to (eventually) tune in on TV.
Regardless of ethnicity, no German competitors are making much of a dent in MMA. Dennis Siver, who has competed at a high level for many years, is as close as it gets and he admitted recently that he rarely if ever gets recognized on the street.
Europe is without question a major market, and an exciting one at that. England, Ireland and Scotland are fantastic places for the UFC to find new talent and stage some great events. Poland is an emerging powerhouse, with a solid fan base and a popular champion to root for. There are a number of great fighters from all over the continent. Germany had a great shot this last weekend with UFC 69 and it’s a shame there was no TV deal ready, no breakout German performance, no promise of a future event.
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