At UFC 235 this past weekend at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, veteran welterweight fighter Robbie Lawler nearly pounded former Olympic wrestler and 2/1 favorite Ben Askren into a first-round TKO victory. But Askren, making his first UFC appearance, managed to survive Lawler’s early onslaught of head and body shots, and about two minutes later, at 3:20 in the first round, completed the comeback, ending it with a bulldog choke.
Respected referee Herb Dean saw Lawler’s arm dangle limp while he attempted to extricate himself from the choke, causing Dean to stop the fight in what goes down as a submission win for Askren. While controversial and unfortunate for Lawler (and his backers), it was understandable, and the popular Lawler quickly turned from aggrieved to praising Dean and expressing his understanding (transcript here.)
The NFL is the king of U.S sports betting, but mixed martial arts offers something different, in some ways better and more exciting, and indeed controversial at times, same as every sport. Certain events, even for a somewhat niche sport now in its first year of a distribution deal on ESPN platforms, can generate the betting handle seen in a good NFL game.
“Everyone understands a fight”
Exposure to more mainstream audiences via ESPN and FOX Sports 1, through an earlier deal, continues to raise MMA’s profile. To get to this this point, UFC and other promotions such as Bellator have long embraced and understood the engagement value of sports betting.
“The UFC has been on the forefront of sports wagering content,” Jason Simbal, vice president of risk management for CG Technology, told Sports Handle. “They embraced it by including odds on the websites on telecasts. And the announcers will mention the betting favorites during the fights. Also they have their own produced betting show that airs before each pay-per-view on UFC Fight Pass, which helps.”
The PGA Tour, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and National Hockey League alike have “evolved” since the Supreme Court struck down the 1992 federal ban on full-fledged sports wagering outside Nevada. Each of the commissioners of those leagues now tout the virtues of increased engagement courtesy sports wagering, manufacture new monetization opportunities, and enjoy those that have already come.
But while each of those leagues, particularly MLB, seek to build new sports betting bridges with proprietary Statcast figures, for example, there’s no learning curve to begin betting on mixed martial arts.
“I think it comes down to it being a fight. And what I mean by that is that when you’re dealing with a lot of other sports, you’re dealing with a lot of variables, the nuances of football, baseball, basketball,” veteran MMA writer-reporter Damon Martin told Sports Handle. “And there’s a guttural instinct in everybody when it comes down to it.
“And yes, there are a lot of nuances when it comes to mixed martial arts, too. But ultimately it comes down to a fight, and everyone including the guy down the street who only watches soccer, and casual followers, understands a fight.”
Correspondingly that’s where the most action comes — on who will win, less so the props like method of victory, such as by decision or submission or KO/TKO, or in which round a fighter will win.
“Betting on the specific fighter is the most popular, but we do a lot of parlay business as well,” Simbal said. “I’d say about 70% of the handle is on straight bets [side and total rounds] and 30% is on props and parlays.”
Stars drive the handle
This is no revelation at all: Stacked cards juice the handle. Just like an NFL game with a “national” team like the Cowboys or Steelers will draw heavier action than a Texans-Titans tilt, UFC events with headliners like Conor McGregor will attract more dollars. And no MMA fighter is a bigger attraction or better smack talker than the self-promoting 30-year-old Irish welterweight, who unabashedly seeks to make as much damn money with his fists and mouth as he possibly can.
“The spikes nowadays come depending on the card,” SuperBook Vice President of Sports Operations Jay Kornegay told Sports Handle. “We see solid action on every UFC card, but where we really see the needle moving is when we have an all-star lineup. Those cards are so popular we see the spike.
“Conor is the biggest one. Whenever he fights it will make a big impact on our numbers. Khabib-Conor. When McGregor fought Mayweather [in a boxing match], that was off the charts.”
6 years ago today. My first time as Champ Champ. It wasn’t until I won my second double that I trademarked it.
The O.G Champ Champ! pic.twitter.com/xjpbQA064Y
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) January 1, 2019
UFC 235 featured a pretty stacked card, too, with two title fights and Jon “Bones” Jones at the top defending his light heavyweight belt, albeit as a very heavy -800 favorite, so steep that it discouraged action. And the co-main event pitted defending welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, a former All-American wrestler at Missouri, against Kamaru Usman.
“The Usman fight was very comparable to a good NFL game,” Kornegay said, regarding the betting handle. “The Jones fight, not as much. Still a solid ticket count, but not as many large wagers.”
Simbal saw the same thing.
“A big PPV that’s in town, like UFC 235, always does a lot of volume,” he said. “In fact on Saturday the two title fights had the most handle of any events on the entire day.”
Jones controlled challenger Anthony Smith the entire fight and the only surprise is that Jones didn’t finish Smith, ultimately winning by unanimous decision. The odds of the fight going to decision closed at about +500, almost as big of an underdog as Smith was to win (about +625).
The more stunning result came during the Woodley-Usman fight. Not because Usman won by decision as around a +135 underdog, but his sheer dominance from wire to wire as Woodley barely touched up Usman. Woodley lost the takedown battle and Usman squeezed the life and seemingly the will out of Woodley and his massive quadriceps muscles. The judges scored the fight 50-44, 50-44, and 50-45 in Usman’s favor.
The past and future
Las Vegas is the mecca of mixed martial arts. Big UFC cards draw celebrities and big parties and, yes, big bets.
“It’s the natural order of things,” Martin said. “Las Vegas is always being considered the fight capital of the world. I think it’s a natural extension of Las Vegas sports betting. Also, I think that the relationship was already built in with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III being the owners, as they are known for being casino owners. So it’s a natural connection between the organization and the betting.”
From 2001 to 2016, before selling their shares for a reported $4 billion to Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG, the Fertitta brothers, also Station Casinos co-owners, owned and operated the fighting promotion. Also, UFC is headquartered in Las Vegas.
Thus the relationship between MMA and betting has never been taboo, even as a federal ban on sports betting hung over the rest of the country until May 2018.
“I think you see it more with MMA than you do most other sports. You see the betting lines on TV,” Martin said. “There’s betting shows dedicated to mixed martial arts. There is no other sport besides boxing, when a big boxing match comes up, do you ever hear betting lines or those kind of things happen in any other sport the way it does in mixed martial arts.”
Big bets and a large betting handle isn’t necessarily the goal or the key, either. Just a $10 wager often spells two eyeballs.
“Big bets (four figures and above) aren’t as prevalent on UFC as other popular U.S. sports like college basketball and NBA, but handle and ticket count have definitely spiked for some of the bigger cards,” observed PointsBet US CEO Johnny Aitken.
Kornegay notes that while the explosive growth of the early days of UFC has leveled off, the arrow still points up.
“When it first launched, it just skyrocketed,” he said. “We don’t see those types of jumps nowadays, but the numbers are still increasing, pending those all-star cards. Two or three all-star cards throughout the year, you’ll see increases when it capture the fan’s attention.”
And thanks to expanded legal sports betting in the U.S., there’s attention to be captured. According to a recent study commissioned by Bleacher Report, 58% of respondents say they would watch more games and 47% say they would watch more, different sports if sports wagering were legal in their states. In many states, it’s coming sooner or later.
In between the star-studded cards, there are less heralded events — Fight Night or ESPN+ events — filling the gaps, nearly every weekend.
"Floating like a butterfly… sting like Cigano!"
— UFC (@ufc) March 8, 2019
“When it’s UFC or boxing, I write an article and I get a million responses, ‘Oh man! I can’t believe the odds, I can’t believe this guy’s an underdog, I can’t believe that he may be that much of a favorite,’” Martin said. “‘I’m gonna throw down some money on him while he’s still a big underdog.'”
And anecdotally, I can tell you as a former colleague of Martin’s at FOX Sports digital, nobody’s articles generated more traffic site-wide.
“I get reactions to the betting odds in MMA constantly,” he said. “It’s non-stop throughout the year whether it’s a Conor McGregor fight, or it’s the fight taking place this weekend in Wichita … people still care about those betting lines.”