Feb 17, 2024; Anaheim, California, USA; Alexander Volkanovski fights against Ilia Topuria during UFC 298 at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

There is no question that UFC has risen in popularity over the course of the past decade.

But while it may be difficult to decipher where the promotion — and mixed martial arts at large — fit into the sports landscape, the president of UFC’s parent company is taking a bold stand regarding its status.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in sports in my career. I’m getting old now. You used to hear it more often than you do now, but it used to be the four majors. The four majors. And frankly, what are you talking about?” Endeavor president Mark Shapiro said during an appearance at Morgan Stanley’s Technology, Media & Telecom Conference on Wednesday. “Like, UFC is now not only mainstream, it’s one of the four majors.”

Those “four majors” Shapiro is referring to are the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. And it’s clear which league he thinks UFC has replaced.

“The ratings on ESPN and ESPN 2, apples to apples against the NHL, even including the playoffs, we dwarf them,” Shapiro said. “You put a Fight Night — not a pay-per-view, not a preliminary bout in front of the pay-per-view — a regular weekly Fight Night on ESPN does double-digit ratings… and the demos are anywhere between 20-40 percent up.

“Not to smack Gary Bettman or anything. I love the NHL. I’m a huge Chicago Blackhawks fan. But they’re just not in our league. It’s just not the case. And keep in mind, when I rattle off the ratings, that doesn’t include what we’re doing on ESPN+, which they’re not publishing. So yes, we’re in a great place.”

Shapiro’s answer came in response to a question regarding whether UFC is under-monetized — a notion he agreed with. To that end, despite the list of successes that the former ESPN executive rattled off, UFC reported $1.3 billion in revenue in 2023, which trailed the NHL’s $5.93 billion in revenue last year.

“Yes, it’s under-monetized,” Shapiro said of UFC. “There’s more money to be made in all the different places we’re making it. But guess what? It’s a growth story. We’re gonna make that money. We’re already making that money. We’ve gone three times on our sponsorship sales. And we’re going to go further in time.”

Obviously, Shapiro is going to paint his product in the best light possible. But while there’s no questioning that UFC has grown and continues to grow in popularity, proclaiming it a top-four sport is some creative accounting.

Considering there is no clear definition on how this is being measured, the comparison between UFC and NHL depends on what you’re looking at. UFC might have better TV ratings, but the NHL currently has more than five times the revenue. Conversely, UFC lays claim to a significantly larger following on social media and appears to be better positioned moving forward.

But even if you concede that the NHL is more popular than UFC, who is to say that the NHL was still a top-four major sport before it was replaced by UFC? Could you really argue that UFC is a top-four sport in popularity (or any other metric) when compared to the NFL, college football, NBA, college basketball, MLB and professional soccer?

There is no questioning that UFC is growing at impressive pace. Shapiro could have simply left it at that.

Then again, the fight game has never been known for its subtlety.

[TKO Group Holdings]

About Ben Axelrod

Ben Axelrod is a veteran of the sports media landscape, having most recently worked for NBC's Cleveland affiliate, WKYC. Prior to his time in Cleveland, he covered Ohio State football and the Big Ten for outlets including Cox Media Group, Bleacher Report, Scout and Rivals.