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Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been plenty of good financial news for Endeavor when it comes to its acquisition of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The UFC’s EBITDA is up markedly, with the company grossing more money through its deal with ESPN and paying its athletes significantly less as a percentage of revenue than rival sports. The health of the company from a public interest standpoint also appears to be in good shape, with impressive pay-per-view numbers trickling out for the UFC’s biggest events.
The most recent example was the Sports Business Journal reporting UFC 263 did a healthy 600,000 buys, even with Israel Adesanya meeting Marvin Vettori—an opponent with limited marquee value—in the main event. This follows impressive numbers coming out for UFC 249 (Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje), UFC 251 (Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal), UFC 253 (Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa), UFC 254 (Gaethje vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov), UFC 257 (Dustin Poirier vs. Conor McGregor), UFC 259 (Adesanya vs. Jan Blachowicz) and UFC 261 (Usman vs. Masvidal 2).
On the surface level, this is a signal that there’s plenty of interest right now in the 155-, 170- and 185-pound divisions and their top fighters. However, there’s also a broader trend at play. Back when the UFC exploded on pay-per-view in 2006-07, one of the ways the UFC marketed itself was based on the depth of its cards. If you ordered a boxing pay-per-view, UFC President Dana White would note, you would get one big fight. If you ordered a UFC pay-per-view, you would get a full lineup of competitive, high-quality matchups. If one fight didn’t deliver the excitement, the likelihood is others would. As such, a large base of fans would order each and every pay-per-view.
That changed over time with the proliferation of shows. Major pay-per-views became less apt to have impressive depth, and instead, the main events came to dominate like they would in boxing. The biggest shows continued to attract the same attention, but it made it harder for lower-level shows because there wasn’t the same depth to entice fans to check out and become invested in the secondary stars of the sport.
The UFC during the pandemic has reversed course on that trend and once again gone back to loading up its pay-per-views. If you ordered Gaethje-Ferguson for the interim lightweight title, you also got a compelling bantamweight title tilt between Henry Cejudo and Dominick Cruz, as well as a clash of knockout artists in Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik. Usman-Masvidal I was buttressed by Alexander Volkanovski fighting Max Holloway for the featherweight title and Petr Yan meeting Jose Aldo for the bantamweight belt. Likewise, UFC 253, UFC 259, UFC 261 and UFC 263 all featured more title fights in addition to the main events. The shows with depth tended to do better business because of the added value.
The new MMA formula has thus become the old MMA formula: Give fans bang for their buck, and they will support you in larger numbers. That hasn’t always been the case in combat sports, where main events have often ruled over all, but it has proved true in MMA for all but the biggest of superstars. So, the UFC knows what to do moving forward, right? Not so fast. The problem for the UFC is that this recent trend was predicated on running events without crowds, and the crowds are coming back.
In the past, when the UFC was running major cities all over the world, the company had to produce high-quality lineups in order to do impressive live crowds. There was a hook to seeing the UFC live every couple of years, but that only goes so far with high ticket prices if there aren’t some attractive fights to watch. As such, the UFC would need to spread the depth across TV cards in different cities and couldn’t devote all its attention to the pay-per-views. Moreover, when a main event fell through on a TV event in a major city, pay-per-views would often get raided to make sure the live fans weren’t disappointed.
That hasn’t been a concern during the pandemic. The UFC hasn’t put a single title fight on a non-PPV card, because there’s no need to do so. All the money comes from the pay-per-view events. Likewise, when a television main event has fallen through, the UFC hasn’t felt the need to replace it. The UFC has main evented cards with the likes of Jessica Eye vs. Cynthia Calvillo, Calvin Kattar vs. Dan Ige, Michelle Waterson vs. Angela Hill, Anthony Smith vs. Devin Clark, Waterson vs. Marina Rodriguez and Rozenstruik vs. Augusto Sakai. These aren’t bad fights, but they’re also not the sort of fights most fans are going to pay $200 to see live.
Soon enough, the UFC will be back to weekly touring. There might be an argument for running more shows from the UFC Apex to protect pay-per-view depth, but it seems unlikely the UFC will follow that course given the money it can make from live shows and the interest it has shown in building interest in the sport through live events all over the world. As such, the UFC will be forced once again to choose on a regular basis between chopping away at that pay-per-view value and leaving live fans unappealing cards. It’s no simple choice and it will likely cause UFC executives and fans alike to look back at the pandemic with some affection for what it allowed from a lineup building perspective.
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