Attempting to determine which U.S. pro sports are presently waxing or waning in popularity is a daunting prospect. Actually, it's a little bit like tracking down Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster: A lot of folks have opinions, but few have any real evidence to support their claims.

For example, one website claimed - much to my surprise - that bull riding was "the fastest growing professional sport." But other than informing me that former champion rider Tuff Hedeman's son is named after the late Lane Frost, "because Lane was his best friend," the article did nothing to bolster my knowledge of bull riding, or document its rising popularity.

In Pictures: 8 Money-Saving Tips For Sports Fans

USA Today columnist Michael Hiestand was a little more helpful. In a 2007 article entitled "X Games Still Tries to Be Hip, Gain Viewers," he revealed that the 2006 X Games "averaged 0.9% of U.S. cable TV households on ESPN and just 1% of U.S. TV households on ABC." That jives with my own research showing that the popularity of the X Games, which feature extreme action sports, is largely in the minds of ESPN executives. For comparison purposes, "Starstruck," a recent Disney Channel movie, averaged a 5.2% audience share, equating to 6 million total viewers.

Still, that didn't stop one online reader from questioning Hiestand's numbers.

"Your [sic] a jerk Michael Hiestand, many people watch the X Games," username111 notes on the USA Today website. "Just because your hair cut looks like your [sic] from the 40s and you stink at writing, you should quit your job."

Well, username11 is right about the hair, of course, but I'm not exactly sure what Nielsen number corresponds to "many people." I'm guessing it's still less than the digits generated by "Starstruck," but what do I know? My coif is even more retro than Heistand's.

Since 1985, Harris Interactive has conducted a survey asking Americans to name their favorite sport. The following table summarizes those results:

On the Rise Declining


Sport

% Change

Sport

% Change
Pro Football +7

Baseball -7
Auto Racing +3

Men\'s Tennis -4
Hockey +3

Horse Racing -3
College Football +2

Men\'s College Basketball -1
Men\'s Golf +1

Men\'s Po Basketball 0

What's especially intriguing is that hockey, which seems to have been in the popularity penalty box lately, has actually gained supporters since 1985. Still, talk is cheap and I wanted to see if sports fans put their money where their mouths were, so I dug deeper and found revenue totals for some of the nation's major sports:


Pro Sports Revenue (2008-09)

  • Horse racing $8 billion.
  • Major League Baseball (MLB) $6.2 billion.
  • National Football League (NFL) $6 billion.
  • National Basketball Association (NBA) $3.2 billion.
  • National Hockey League (NHL) $2.4 billion.
  • Other spectator sports leagues $3.3 billion.

These numbers from Plunkett Research, Ltd. present a more accurate picture, especially when viewed in light of season length. Horse racing is a year-round activity that takes place at a number of racetracks; MLB plays 162 regular season games; the NBA 82; the NHL 80; and the NFL just 16.

The Next Big Thing?
Nonetheless, as informative as all of this data is, none of it highlights what many consider to be the fastest-growing sport of them all: mixed martial arts, or MMA. According to an October 27, 2008, report by Emerging Growth Research, LLP, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was on track to "exceed $250 million in revenue in 2008."

"I think the sport of mixed martial arts has already proved in the past five years that it can have a very fast rate of growth," noted UFC welterweight Josh Koscheck on AOL's Fanhouse recently. "I believe that in the next five years, it'll be like NFL football, NBA basketball. You'll see kids in gyms and dojos around the country, inspired by MMA. We're going to break a lot of records, that's for sure."

Is Koscheck correct? Will MMA be the next National Football League or National Basketball Association, or has the former "Ultimate Fighter" cast member taken one too many blows to the head? Clearly, MMA has proved itself in the pay-per-view arena. "UFC 100", which featured a main event pitting former pro wrestler Brock Lesnar against Frank Mir, reportedly drew 1.6 million PPV buys, easily outpacing the 1.25 million buys generated from the Manny Pacquiao/Miguel Cotto World Boxing Organization welterweight title bout. Additionally, a 2008 EliteXC match between Kimbo Slice and James Thompson that aired in prime time on CBS peaked at 6.51 million viewers (about 500,000 more than "Starstruck"), according to Nielsen Media Research. (See the biggest upsets from 2009 in Sports Bets That Would Have Made You Rich.)

Yet, as an investment opportunity, MMA has been a disaster. With numerous entities competing for a piece of the pugilistic pie, publicly traded MMA companies like The Fight Zone (OTC:TFZI) and ProElite Inc. (OTC:PELE) have seen their share prices tumble faster than Jack and Jill went down the hill. At $0.0001 a share, The Fight Zone makes bankrupt Washington Mutual look like Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A), while ProElite shares are down over 99% since the end of 2008 (in fairness, both companies trade on the over-the-counter market and, thus, are very volatile).

So, it looks like readers will just have to draw their own conclusions as to which sports are gaining or losing fans. As for me? I'm thinking about getting a new haircut.

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