As a digital marketer and consultant I deal with broad data pictures a lot. I'm attracted to these things. I wrote a post a while ago about how Ronda Rousey had indeed passed Serena Williams as the "most talked about female athlete" if you use Google Trends as a measure. The MTG Charlie Hustle article on the importance of the "casual fan", discussed on the Roundtable here, got me thinking about the current state of Muay Thai in terms of reach and whether or not it is actually growing. Is it?
So I thought I'd run some Google Trends for search related search terms and get rough data pictures for how much these keyword concepts are at the fingertips of internet users. Now, keep in mind, things like Google Trends are very broad data pictures. They do present valid data, but the challenge is in how to interpret it. From the looks of it though, Muay Thai is not growing in popularity.
Muay Thai as Parasitic on MMA
To start off with I ran world wide data for the search terms "Muay Thai", "MMA" and "UFC". It is generally assumed that Muay Thai's popularity has been strongly parasitic on the popularity of both MMA and UFC, and one can see here just how flat Muay Thai interest has been compared to these dominant terms:
The potentially alarming thing here is that both MMA and UFC have already peaked (2009-2012) in general popularity as a search term. If indeed the fate of Muay Thai relevance is depended on both MMA and UFC interest, Muay Thai has something of a problem here.
A note on the data: my guess is that because search terms like these are often more widely used in times of discovery, searches like "What is MMA?" or "UFC fighters" may flourish when a sport is growing and new people are exploring it. The widest band of growth indeed occurred between 2009-2012. Of the demographic which fighting arts may more naturally find appeal, these kinds of searches are no longer happening as frequently. This isn't to say that once converted MMA or the UFC isn't bringing in more dollars than ever, or that marketing of them to the coverted isn't thriving. But what it does suggest is that the bubble of growth may have already occurred. Now MMA/UFC interests are more focused on maturing its audience, and less able to grow it. Short term this may be great. Long term, though non-ideal.
If MMA/UFC is not steadily growing in its sphere of influence, and Muay Thai is truly parasitic on these, Muay Thai has a natural ceiling here. And in fact it seems that Muay Thai world wide has already experienced it's own bubble of discovery interest and now is somewhat on the decline. For those of us who love Muay Thai, we may be experiencing Muay Thai as growing, because the viewership is maturing. But, at least by these data pictures, the discovery of Muay Thai is slowed.
Muay Thai and Kickboxing
There is a secondary avenue toward Muay Thai and that is interest in Martial Arts, as a somewhat exotic self-development discipline. There has always been the possibility that Muay Thai could flourish much in the way that Kung Fu (and then TKD) did through martial art interest, particularly through the influence of film. In terms of film exposure movie's like Ong Bak (and sadly much earlier, Kickboxer) have helped expose Muay Thai to the world, and now you have everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Jason Statham teeping and elbowing their way through fight scenes, showing that Muay Thai has incorporated itself into the vocabulary of cinema violence. But (above, blue) the keyword/concept of "martial arts" has been on the fast decline since 2004, world wide. In the world "muay thai" has crept above "kickboxing", but this remains incremental really ("kickboxing" does not include "kick boxing" a substantial variation). The decline of "martial arts" as a search interest suggests that the secondary avenue for Muay Thai popularity, that of Asian martial self-improvement is somewhat on the wane.
In the United States (above), "kickboxing" (yellow) has a stronger presence than "muay thai" (blue) and "MMA" (red) has been on the decline since 2008.
Country By Country Muay Thai Popularity
Below are the search term popularity indices by country. As can be seen only Brazil shows a strong increase in the popularity of the term quite apart from the general 2009-2013 MMA bell...slightly so in Italy. Every other country shows the index of the term in decline:
The most optimistic way to read this data is that indeed Muay Thai has flourished under a parasitic relationship to MMA and the UFC. And as those elements grew so did Muay Thai. As each of these larger phenomena decline in terms of growth rate (which I suspect is what is expressed in discovery uses of Search), Muay Thai also has suffered. For those of us who are the converted we are experiencing an increase in Muay Thai relevance. The relationship between itself and it's small western demographic is maturing. There is greater understanding of the sport and its scoring, more reach of its Thai stars and their fights, but there remains a very difficult growth curve problem - for those of us cheering it on.
I suspect that the real avenues for Muay Thai growth do not remain with MMA and the UFC who themselves are undergoing their own growth issues, and whose current WWE style story lines do not seem amenable to Muay Thai discovery anyways (see the kind of non-coverage of Muay Thai legend Jongsanan in TUF 20 for instance). Instead Muay Thai must fight for it's own branding, something that emphasizes its Thai-ness to the west. Muay Thai cannot just be: left-right-lowkick, or "the Thai plumb" two-hands-locked-behind-the-neck. We say this as Thailand tries to export its stars to non-Thai rule events, and tries to internationalize its sport (un-Thai it) so that the IOC will find it acceptable for the Olympics. Long term though, the "Thai" of Muay Thai is what gives it its unique character and expression, the strength of its adherence. Ultimately, the future of Muay Thai resides in Thailand itself, and with how effectively Thailand can communicate that Thainess to the west.
An interesting anecdotal picture perhaps comes from the search popularity pictures of "muay thai" and "BJJ" in the United States. BJJ, I think it fair to say, has certainly grown out of the popularity of MMA, but it also has managed to maintain its own identity to some degree, an art quite apart from MMA, an art that needs to be learned in depth if it is to be of use. In the United States, and the UK as well, "BJJ" has surpassed "Muay Thai" and does not bear the same discovery arc pattern that MMA/UFC shows (below). Brazilian jiu-jitsu is both for the serious MMA fan and practitioner, and composes an art of it's own.
Of course these are just wide-view concepts drawing on search behavior phenomena which may have very diverse influences. This is something like a measurement of memes. I do think though that there are worthy, prospective conclusions to be drawn, but real marketing aims of real events, cultural campaigns and real fighters must take a great deal into consideration. Just something to think about. Now that Muay Thai has received it's one-time bump from MMA and the UFC (2009-2012) I do think it must set its own unique course.