By Jorden Curran
In 2017 TIME magazine estimated that the U.S. youth-sports-economy is a $15 billion dollar industry that continues to grow, charting equipment, travel, training and other costs. The pools of youth talent are seeing participants in soccer, American football, baseball and other activities of high popularity begin to navigate lucrative pathways, scholarships and sponsor opportunities. However, it can be a steep financial journey for the millions of parents and families making the long-term investment to see their child have a shot at making it, not to mention the mental pressure that such goals place upon both parent and child, with only 2% of high school athletes going on to play at the top level of college sports and even fewer successfully making it to the professional level.
As financial equality gaps expand, sport participation is also affected. For families in the States, participation in sport is reported at just 19% for households making $25k income, yet figures rise to 41% for families earning $100k+. As a result, some sports are far more accessible than others and MMA should ensure that low-income families are not left behind.
Annual cost to families, by sport (Source: TIME, 2017):
Lacrosse – $7,956
Hockey – $7,013
Baseball/softball – $4,044
American football – $2,739
Soccer – $1,472
Basketball – $1,143
MMA – ???
Let’s ask ourselves the question, as “the world’s fastest growing sport”, what space does MMA occupy within the galaxy of youth sports in the USA? With a lack of organised governance towards grass roots development, we in fact have no current way of tracking or knowing for sure what the potential of Youth MMA can be and where it is currently at.
Jon Frank, president of the United States Fight League (USFL), discussed Youth MMA’s current place and its level of opportunity and access for the youth of America. He notes a recognisable absence of engagement in MMA among low-income communities. Such an issue is historically uncharacteristic of martial arts, such as boxing or karate, which over the decades have built themselves on a foundation of community impact and accessibility.
“We are missing out on a key demographic of participants,” Jon states. “Historically, kids from lower income communities used combat sports to stay out of trouble and many champion boxers came from these low-income areas. Unlike Boxing which has a vast amount of community-based training and competition opportunities, BJJ and MMA are often cost prohibitive and few business owners have been willing to invest in low-income communities. This is something we are working on right now.”
In 2019 the USFL’s youth pankration league produced 34 young athletes who qualified to represent Team USA at the IMMAF Youth MMA World Championships in Rome. The event was the first of its kind for Youth MMA in the world, providing competitive opportunity at an international level with rule sets tailored for safety and divisions for youngsters from the ages of 12 to 17. Team USA blew away the competition with 28 total medals and the nation’s girls in particular produced an unrivalled level of success compared to their international counterparts.
No doubt, the USA is producing young champions in MMA with equality of opportunity producing an outcome that screams potential for both girls and boys. Yet, as young MMA participants age beyond the youth level, what is the outlook for their sustainability in the sport, and what opportunity does, or can MMA provide as an accessible alternative to the nation’s leading youth activities?
“ESPN estimates over 6 million kids participate in some form of Martial Arts in the United States. In some ways Martial Arts can be considered a base sport because it’s often the first organized athletic activity parents place their kids in,” Jon explains. “Unfortunately, it is also a base sport because so many quit after completing their black belt programs, as in traditional Martial Arts, and many quit sooner. The draw of more video game time, among other things, is sometimes overwhelming and parents feel conflicted about making their child do an activity that they don’t want to or don’t feel like doing.
“In comparison, youth Jiujitsu and MMA participation in the United States is unique from other Martial Arts, as participants often stay involved much longer than other traditional forms, especially those who train in gyms that participate in competitions. A little further down the road, many of these kids are also drawn to high-school wrestling which sometimes starts as a supplement to their BJJ or MMA training.”
However, this stage in life is where young people’s direction can shift once again, as Jon explains, towards new social priorities and core programs such as in wrestling that see MMA practitioners branch away to the singular discipline which offers them more activity.
“Once kids reach high school, new social situations arise such as boyfriends and girlfriends and part time jobs that leaves much less time for athletics. For many good athletes who would otherwise stay involved in MMA, it is high school wrestling that slowly draws them away. Many kids are unable to physically participate in both activities, but many others just lose interest and focus on wrestling, this is mainly due to the consistent competition opportunities that exist in wrestling as compared to MMA.”
Amateur wrestling is widely renown as the strongest foundation for a professional MMA career, and many veterans of the NCAA college leagues have graced the UFC to capture world titles. Yet, when tracking the UFSL hopefuls as they enter high school, only those who remained active in MMA have continued to prominence as MMA competitors in later life, with many young prospects having dropped out of the sport, never to return, even those who accumulated talent as wrestlers. Top USFL graduates who entered at a youth stage have included the likes of Brian Ortega, Aaron Pico, Kay Hansen, Lucas Brennan, Angela Lee and Christian Lee, to name a few, and most recently, Victoria Lee, who a gold medal during 2019 at the IMMAF Youth World Championships.
“Many former youth USFL athletes have gone to the highest levels in the professional MMA ranks,” Jon explained. However, he added; “each and every one of these athletes with the exception of one, who was pursuing the Olympics while in High School, remained active in MMA during high school. For those who quit MMA during high school, none, regardless of how talented or gifted, were able to do the same. Not to say this is not possible, but unfortunately the vast majority just never returned to the sport after stepping away for 4 years.
“None of this is surprising or unreasonable,” Jon adds. “The opportunities in Youth MMA are extremely limited and in most of the United States, unreachable. The prospects of an actual IMMAF Youth World MMA Championships have kept more of the older kids engaged and should help grow awareness of the sport with each consecutive event.”
The USFL president, who has witnessed the progression of some of MMA’s biggest names in the USA, believes that the advent of an international circuit of youth MMA competitions will have a revolutionary effect on the sport of MMA in general, ushering some of the following developments:
- A larger base of athletes that will increase the number of elite professionals, especially in the female ranks where it is often difficult to match competitors and even harder to salvage matches if one participant withdraws due to injury.
- High level professionals will be younger and healthier, meaning less wear and tear than their counterparts who enter MMA at the end of a previous athletic career.
- Athletes who are brought up in a youth developmental system will have an advantage over those who are not afforded such an opportunity. This may bring dominance to certain nations who embrace this while leaving many others behind.
- Finally, While MMA has been around for over 25 years, it still lacks the recognition of being an actual sport. Even today’s MMA greats who have had rewarding careers will still defer to their base sport when it’s time to give back to the community or promote athletics. It’s hopeful that the advent of Youth development in MMA will finally give the sport a sense of community that is lacking today. As an example, Brazilian Jiujitsu arguably became popular in the United States because of the UFC. Since then, BJJ has essentially split from MMA and offers countless competition opportunities and lifelong participants who view the sport as their sole Martial Art. This may be why the BJJ world has an enormous sense of community while the MMA community does not.
“They say It takes a community to raise a child,” Jon adds. “The youth version of MMA has been tried, tested and vetted for safety in the United States. It’s time for the greater MMA community to get behind youth participation and young athlete development in order to make MMA both an expressive Martial Arts activity as well as a thoroughly developed sport of opportunity for young people.”