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When the Ultimate Fighting Championship turned itself into a pay-per-view behemoth in 2006, it utilized a strong brand name to cultivate a broad base of fans who ordered pretty much every event the promotion offered on pay-per-view. The UFC at that point had a choice: either ride out that consistent base for as long as possible or gamble and milk that base more. The UFC elected to take the second option. It went from 10 pay-per-views in 2006 to 11 in 2007 to 12 in 2008 to 13 in 2009 to 15 in 2010 to 16 in 2011. The UFC’s core fans were asked to spend more and more money to catch all the yearly events.
This gamble appeared to pay off at first. The base stuck with the UFC on pay-per-view. The majority of pay-per-views drew 400,000 or more buys every year from 2006 through 2010. However, the tide turned in 2011. With the largest number of offerings in UFC history, fans began picking and choosing much more. Ten of the 16 events that year did below 350,000 buys. A sub-400,000-buy pay-per-view overnight went from an anomaly to the strong majority.
The UFC learned from this mistake, and it hasn’t offered more than 13 pay-per-view events in any year since. Unfortunately, the damage was already done. The UFC fan culture shifted. There was still plenty of fan interest in the product; it’s just that fans picked and chose events rather than ordering pretty much every pay-per-view offering. This trend also accelerated over time. Just like the UFC was able to ride the fan propensity to order pretty much every event for years before the volume of events caught up with it, the trend of fans picking and choosing got worse for years after peak output.
By 2015, the UFC ran seven events that did 600,000 buys or more and six events that did 375,000 buys or less. It did none between 375,000 and 600,000, which used to be the sweet spot. This was a remarkable reversal from what had been the UFC PPV standard, but even this was just a harbinger of things to come. In 2016 and 2017, the UFC has run 20 events. Thirteen did below 325,000 buys, with many below 200,000. One did 450,000 buys. One did 860,000 buys. Five did over a million. It has become complete feast or famine, with standard events doing worse and worse while the biggest events do better than ever.
This is a bad trend for the UFC in a number of ways. Most obviously, it means that there’s a huge base of fans who could be persuaded to order your standard monthly pay-per-views but who rarely ever do. That means less money. Moreover, it means it is much harder to create new draws. A smaller base of fans tuning in to your average event means a smaller group who will tell their friends they’ve got to check out the hot new fighter the next time out. It also gives the biggest stars like Conor McGregor massive leverage to dictate terms to the UFC because they carry business to a degree that just wasn’t the case when the UFC brand name meant a higher base.
That brings us to the next two UFC numbered events: Demetrious Johnson-Ray Borg at UFC 215 on Saturday and Tony Ferguson-Kevin Lee at UFC 216 next month. Both are pretty much certain to die a death on pay-per-view. They’ll still be profitable, but sub-200,000-buy pay-per-views don’t go very far towards massive loan payments that parent company WME-IMG needs to pay off. More importantly, these sorts of events continue to educate fans that the UFC on pay-per-view just isn’t that big of a deal. The company is cultivating the pick-and-choose culture without even producing the profits that came when the UFC used to do this in years past.
The UFC would be wise from a financial standpoint to fight back against this trend by cutting back on the number of pay-per-views it runs. This would mean less money in the short-term, although even then it might mean less of a decrease than expected. Fans would likely in quick order start ordering the rank-and-file shows in greater numbers if there weren’t the bottom-of-the-barrel-interest shows practically screaming at people that not every pay-per-view is special. However, the real dividends would come in time. Just like it took years for fans to gravitate away from ordering pretty much every show, building positive momentum in the other direction would build upon itself.
If the UFC can successfully re-educate its fan base to order more often, it will make it easier to create new stars. That will in turn give the UFC more options for running pay-per-view events. In time, it can ramp up the number of pay-per-views again without creating the perception that it is presenting weak offerings because it will have created a larger base of worthy stars. It means sacrifice in the short-term, but it’s not even that much of a sacrifice because you’re giving up the lowest grossing shows which have fallen precipitously anyway.
This strategy would offer up an additional key benefit: Today’s weakest pay-per-views would need to run somewhere, and the most obvious option would be on Fox. Those are still largely bigger fights than the UFC puts on Fox otherwise, and it would likely mean higher ratings that can be used to help bolster the UFC’s next television contract. The UFC would be simultaneously bolstering its pay-per-view future and its television future.
It’s difficult for any business to focus on its long-term health at the expense of short-term profits, and it’s more difficult when the owners of that business have just put up as much money as WME-IMG did to buy the UFC. Still, the UFC right now is in a place where it would benefit greatly from demonstrating that sort of vision and giving its current business strategy a hard, careful look. Running Johnson-Borg on pay-per-view is good for pretty much nobody.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and AXS-TV’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Bryan Alvarez at WrestlingObserver.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. He received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.