Sportsbooks: Boxing vs. MMA

By Zach Arnold on May 31, 2011
Sportsbooks: Boxing vs. MMA
Boxing is still king when it comes to sheer dollars bet on big-money fights

There is zero comparison to the amount of cash that celebrities, whales, and fans put out for big boxing fights as there is for a standard UFC card…

A recent article in the Las Vegas Sun discussed the increased action at various sportsbooks in Las Vegas for UFC betting. The truth is, there is just as much if not more action on the foreign sportsbooks as there is for brick-and-mortar locales. Bodog, BetUS, BetOnFighting, and many other outlets have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to betting on MMA fights. Whether it’s parlays or prop bets, a lot of the action from hardcore MMA fans has been with the foreign outlets because they were offering heavy action to betters. 

Heavy action does not mean that it’s more profitable action, however. 

Boxing is still king when it comes to sheer dollars bet on big-money fights. But there are just not as many big-money boxing bouts to bet on. MMA cards feature nine, 10, sometimes 11 bouts for fans to bet on and since MMA fans care about the first fight as much as they care about the main event, you end up with a lot of parlays and side bets being made. Boxing’s audience, however, is far more affluent than MMA’s. The whales go to the boxing shows while more middle-class fans go to the MMA events. Comparing boxing to MMA in terms of audience affluence is like comparing golf fans to WWE fans. Golf may not bring in the ratings that WWE still does on cable television, but golf has a ton of rich people invested and active in the sport while WWE is drawing on the lower-end of the economic scale. 

Las Vegas has not been kind to either boxing or MMA when it comes to non-mega fight events. The paper is flying when it comes to comps and discounted tickets for recent events in the city. Expectations are high for fans in Las Vegas and the local economy has been hit hard. I can vividly remember Bob Arum a few years ago in a Yahoo Sports article stating that it was time for boxing to move out of Las Vegas and to start priming the pump in other markets by using some elbow grease because the local Vegas scene is not what it used to be. But Arum still runs big events in Vegas in order to keep in good standing with the locals. 

This past Saturday night in Vegas, UFC 130 was at the MGM Grand Garden Arena and it was not what I call a major financial success. The great irony for UFC not running strong cards in Las Vegas, at this point, is that Las Vegas is what the Fertitta family is all about. They run a massive operation there with over 125 employees under the Zuffa LLC banner. Last month, they drew over 55,000 fans at the Sky Dome in Toronto for a monster fight card. A month later, UFC struggled to fill the empty seats shown on camera during their Las Vegas PPV event. UFC has become a victim of too many cards and lack of star power due to stagnant television ratings and high injury levels in key talent divisions.

MMA is settling nicely into a situation where it’s not a major league sport but it is a sport of value where there is some healthy money involved. It’s under the radar enough so that the shenanigans of Dana White don’t get the exposure that, say, someone of Roger Goodell’s stature would attract. And, yet, because there are so many fights happening there is a fairly decent amount of money being spent for PPV and for gambling. 

With that said, there is zero comparison to the amount of cash that celebrities, whales, and fans put out for big boxing fights (like Pacquiao vs. Mosley) as there is for a standard UFC card. Obviously, that theory will be tested hard when Pacquiao fights Juan Manuel Marquez in mid-November. JMM is a great opponent and a true test for Pacquiao, but he’s not someone who is on the radar of a lot of fight fans and I wouldn’t expect a ton of sportsbook action in favor of him. Many of the major fights coming up in boxing are not happening in the States, which complicates matters further for those who rely on whales to bet on boxing. Unless they show up in town (Vegas) to watch a fight, they likely aren’t bettors or they are in Macau or betting online. 

Despite the recent increase of activity for MMA betting in Las Vegas, the odds are in favor of the foreign sportsbook to get increased action as UFC runs more events globally. They have a Vancouver event coming up in two weeks, and Dana White is talking about creating Ultimate Fighter reality shows in foreign countries and creating a World Grand Prix system. Even with the heavy crackdown by the Feds in the States for the major poker web sites, the action for online sportsbooks remains steady and should increase. When Americans want to gamble, they will find a way to do so. You can plug one leak but another one will quickly spring up. Just like with Prohibition a century ago, Americans love their vices and if Las Vegas can’t benefit, an online sportsbook will.

There are major differences between boxing and MMA, however, when it comes to how much profit one can make if you run a sportsbook. Recently, many boxing fights have had some lopsided lines. Because boxing fans aren’t as heavy into undercards as MMA fans, you end up with pretty traditional and conservative betting patterns for the regular players. Unless you get a situation like Pacquiao’s last fight with Shane Mosley where an inordinate amount of suckers thought that Mosley stood a chance of being competitive, the books aren’t going to make major money. Bernard Hopkins and Jean Pascal have had two really close fights which automatically leads to healthy action, but just how many of those scenarios currently exist?

In MMA, the betting patterns are far different. There’s a lot of parlay action going on. Because of the different ways a fighter can win an MMA fight, it is a little more chaotic to predict just who is going to win. This leads to more betting based on emotion than logic, so you end up seeing people get trapped into the mindset of ‘value betting’ if they aren’t involved in parlays. So, an MMA fighter with limited skills may be a +300 underdog and under normal circumstances would not get touched, but because the sport has so many variables in it as far as winning (bad judging, freak injury, surprise KO or submission) is concerned, bettors get sucked right into taking some chances on underdogs when they know they shouldn’t. Outside of certain fighters like Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre, a lot of the top stars in MMA are not rock-solid favorites. That naturally creates more action. 

In terms of the sheer amount of cash, boxing will always attract more money than MMA. But there are more variables in MMA betting and, thus, the sportsbooks have a better shot of making money. Boxing is to checkers as MMA is to chess when it comes to betting at the casinos.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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Georges St. Pierre



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  2. Ron 05:45pm, 05/31/2011

    I understand the whole betting issue, MMA vs Boxing.  But as a true fight fan who doesn’t bet (not a value issue, just think it’s stupid to bet on something you can’t control or predict), this is sad. 

    What I’ve always sought is the violence.  The raw mano-on-mano aggression places fighting sports above all others.  Others pretend to do what fighters REALLY do.

    I followed Boxing from 1969-2008 then realized MMA (all brands) eclipse Boxing.  More raw violence, much less politics and obvious corruption.  I still watch Boxing, but I love MMA.

    The difference is passion.

    So betters determine what we see on TV.  What a drag - because we all know in our hearts that MMA fighting is the best (legal, sanctioned) violence we’ve ever seen.

    BTW: this is why Pacquiao is everyone’s favorite, versus Mayweather.  Pacquiao demonstrates violence and has passion.  Even the tier three MMA fighter has that.

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