Opinion: Quantity Over Quality, UFC Cards in the ESPN Era

By Patrick Auger Aug 16, 2019


The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 241 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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UFC 241 will take place on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. Headlined by a Daniel Cormier-Stipe Miocic rematch for the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title, the main card also includes Nate Diaz’s return against Anthony Pettis, undefeated prospect Paulo Henrique Costa’s showdown with Yoel Romero in a bout with former interim middleweight title challenger Yoel Romero and eighth-ranked middleweight Derek Brunson’s battle with Ian Heinisch.

Featuring several excellent prelims -- Cory Sandhagen-Raphael Assuncao and Manny Bermudez-Casey Kenney, for instance -- the card will be worth watching from top to bottom, with UFC officials expecting that company’s largest gate ever for a California event.

Although the headliner alone would be enough for hardcore fans to purchase the show, the rest of the lineup is what makes UFC 241 feel like something special -- something that does not happen often for the promotion these days. Coming off a less-than-thrilling production at UFC Fight Night 156 in Uruguay and the lowest-rated UFC event on ESPN a week prior, most of the promotion’s cards over the past year or so have seemed like little more than filler. Even UFC 240 was lacking in notable names and contenders outside its main and co-main events, with only two bouts on the entire card featuring ranked fighters against each other.

Hosting 42 events this year, it comes as no surprise that the UFC cannot put on massive cards every time out, but viewership and gate numbers have been underwhelming for some of the promotion’s less-attractive shows of late. UFC on ESPN 5 in Newark, New Jersey, only managed to draw 680,000 viewers, with a total attendance of 10,427 and gate of $688,000; and UFC Fight Night 154 in Greenville, South Carolina, headlined by a Chan Sung Jung-Renato Carneiro featherweight tilt did even worse, drawing 7,682 fans for a total gate of $567,930. While the Greenville event saw the promotion enter a new regional market, UFC on ESPN 5 took place in one of the UFC’s most established cities and produced the lowest gate of any of the events hosted there to date.

Isn’t this a problem for the UFC? Doesn’t the company care that its viewership, attendance and gate numbers are headed in the wrong direction? Won’t this put a dent in the UFC’s bottom line? The answer to all of the above: not in the slightest. Since inking the initial contract with ESPN in 2018 and the subsequent exclusive pay-per-view distribution deal in March, the UFC only has to worry about filling the cards with enough bouts to account for the scheduled time slots. Quality takes a backseat. Why? Because the money the UFC receives from the sports broadcasting network is contingent simply on those events being held, not how many people watch them or attend them live. It doesn’t matter if six million people tune in or 6,000, the promotion gets paid the same amount of money either way, and while it’s true that a reduction in live gates could technically hurt the UFC’s overall revenue, the majority of that income comes from stacked events like UFC 241, where numbers seem to be doing just fine.

Even pay-per-views have less incentive to be exciting from top to bottom. With the UFC rumored to only receive additional income from PPV events that break the 500,000-buy plateau -- something that hasn’t been done in the past several years without names like Jon Jones, Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey involved -- it makes more sense for the promotion to keep fan-favorite matchups separated so that they can be spread out as main events over several smaller cards. Unless the UFC thinks packaging multiple intriguing fights together has a chance at breaking the 500,000-buy limit (see UFC 241) or bringing in a massive gate (again, see UFC 241), it doesn’t favor it to do so.

Now, you might say, “What about ESPN? Won’t it care about the low ratings and pay-per-view buys?” While that’s a valid question, the truth is the network probably doesn’t at the moment, and even if it did, there isn’t much it can do about the situation. ESPN has locked itself into a seven-year deal with the UFC, and it desperately needs content for ESPN+ -- until it can look at bringing in more mainstream sports when current programming contracts are up for renegotiation. With Disney making it clear that the OTT sports streaming service is the future for ESPN, it won’t care as much about ratings as it will about subscribers moving forward, and the UFC knows it.

That’s not to say that ESPN will turn a blind eye forever, as the network still wants the product for which it’s paying $300 million a year to be a worthwhile investment, but it’s unlikely it will be discussed at length until several years down the road. In the meantime, the UFC will make use of its 600-plus-fighter roster to fill the 42 cards it has scheduled and will most likely look at hosting more shows internationally, where live events are more of a rarity. For the fans watching at home, however, expect more dud cards and appreciate shows like UFC 241. This could be the norm for a while. Advertisement

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