Muay Thai Fading in Thailand
By Mike LNg
Muay Thai has enjoyed some thing of a renaissance in the west. At a grass roots level Muay Thai seems to have a growth in interest most likely in part due to the developing vocabulary of MMA fans and the growing use of Muay Thai in MMA as the de facto striking style of choice. An argument could accurately be made that perhaps the knowledge of Muay Thai among MMA fans or even its practitioners is still at a low ebb. Still the word is out and some of the more curious fans are finding real Muay Thai. Now it seems Muay Thai is on the lips of everyone with even the most general understanding of fight sports. Globally, Muay Thai has never enjoyed a bigger presence.
In Thailand however it seems to be shrinking. I can remember when I first started viewing the famous Songchai video compilations of fights from the stadiums of Bangkok. The crowds were literally elbow to elbow and hugely popular among Thais in general. Things have however changed with the audience. Traditionally ‘punters’ or gamblers were lined in the stadiums and although gambling is technically illegal this form of betting lives on. One could even go so far as to say that the vast majority of Thais in attendance at Muay Thai in the stadiums aren’t so much ardent sports fans as they are ardent gamblers. So what has reduced Thai attendance at Muay Thai events in Bangkok? Simply put, better gambling opportunities and public perception.
During the late 80s and early 90s Muay Thai was in what has been termed the ‘golden’ era of Muay Thai. During this time gamblers had little option but to be at fights in order to gamble more than a few even earn their livings with gambling. Now in the present era though gambling is now possible with the touch of a phone button. One need never be present to lay a single wager. The other factor is that football is now the premier choice in gambling and with 24-7 coverage on virtually every cable network in Thailand the interest has shifted largely away from Muay Thai to football for gambling needs.
Football also has one advantage in terms of public reception among Thais that Muay Thai doesn’t: a solid reputation. Muay Thai is commonly associated with poverty and criminal activity. It isn’t viewed as an activity that normal, well-respected citizens engaged in. Football is viewed as the more glamorous, more acceptable sport choice.
What keeps Muay Thai alive though not thriving is foreigners. Nowadays it is not uncommon to see more foreigners than Thais at some stadium cards. The difference is most foreigners are there to watch the sport and not to gamble. It would seem that a lot of Thais have recognized the decline in popularity with Muay Thai and the dangers that come from it. And some adjustments have been made such as the change in the clinch rule to encourage more engagement among fighters by Lumpini Stadium.
But for the most part the same audience is catered to: the gamblers. Maybe out of fear of perhaps losing interest among Muay Thai’s core audience or maybe because of force of habit the same audience is paid the most attention to.
Lately there has been much happily released press releases from the like of the World Muay Thai Council (WMC) promising (for years now) that Muay Thai will become an Olympic sport. To this end WMC has altered the name of Muay Thai to ‘muaythai’ in the hopes that will some how bypass the International Olympic Committee’s clear standing on no sport including any term denoting nationality. Its an effort almost certainly destined to failure. And all of this effort is towards what end? The broad presumption that is made that as an Olympic sport with helmet and TKD styled padding Muay Thai will some how have a higher profile and hence greater acceptance. While this approach acknowledges the importance of global acceptance it overlooks the problem in Muay Thai’s home country.
In order for Muay Thai to reverse the tide against its own decline in Thailand it will take bold and intelligent moves by the promoters into Thailand on a multi-level approach. The first thing they need to do is demonstrate through integrity that Muay Thai is not a low-class, dirty sport. That means among self-regulation effort to stop gambling on your own events. Instead of being tied completely to the gamblers whims, they needs to broaden the appeal to sports fans. Yet repeatedly promoters cater to the desires of gamblers above all else.
With increased foreign interest in Muay Tha growing a truly meaningful and authoritative independent sanction needs to be established. That has not yet occurred with the exception of WBC. In order for an independent to operate as it should perhaps the government’s role needs to be changed. In Thailand the commission of the culture encourages its promotion, the education of Muay Thai depends on the Ministry of Education and the army manages the sport. While the Thai government doesn’t seem too involved beyond the granting of right to sanction with their authority perhaps they too should be bypassed. For example in international boxing no independent sanction has ties to the national government of any nation. Despite the myriad of issues international boxing sanctions struggle with there is overall a better sense of ranking and authority in the sport.
In any scenario nothing will change unless promoters start learning to market to a different audience other than gamblers who are fading in numbers and finding other sports more desirable for gambling. It will take a bold move to from dependence on the old audience while building a new one. I hope Thailand and its Muay Thai promoters are up to the challenge.
Thanks for reading and for more on punters and their role in Muay Thai see the excellent Siam Fight Mag site.