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.
Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream the UFC live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
As we seemingly return to a more normalized Ultimate Fighting Championship schedule in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, several of the promotion’s upcoming events have been announced, with headliners and subsequent undercard bouts in tow. While lineups are always subject to change, the next three shows for the UFC are mostly set, with the outcomes of these matches and cards affecting rankings, building or derailing stars and, in the case of UFC 250, carrying title implications. Having successfully pulled off three events that exceeded expectations in both excitement and profitability the last time out, the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization will attempt to repeat that feat following the Memorial Day break.
With that said, let’s take a look at the UFC’s next three cards and determine the best-case scenarios for the promotion from a business perspective:
UFC on ESPN 9: The Ascent of a Welterweight Contender
The company’s return to the Octagon this Saturday in Las Vegas has more depth to it than you might realize at first glance, with up-and-coming prospects like Billy Quarantillo, Brok Weaver, Mackenzie Dern and Jamahal Hill all getting a chance to showcase their skills at UFC on ESPN 9. In addition to the new recruits, the card also features some notable promotional mainstays such as Tim Elliot, Louis Smolka and Katlyn Chookagian—the most recent women’s flyweight title challenger—as she faces off against the current champion’s sister, Antonia Shevchenko. Top that off with a co-main fight between ranked heavyweights Blagoy Ivanov and Augusto Sakai, and outside of the main event, you have the makings of a pretty decent card.
The headliner, however, has the biggest ramifications for business. In his first fight back since dropping the title to Kamaru Usman over a year ago, Tyron Woodley will meet rising contender Gilbert Burns, who has been on a tear since moving up to the 170-pound weight class. At the moment, the welterweight division is in a bit of a conundrum, with presumptive No. 1 contender Jorge Masvidal looking to defend his BMF belt in a rematch with Nate Diaz and Leon Edwards seemingly out in the cold despite an eight-fight winning streak, having last lost to Usman back in 2015. Although Conor McGregor’s name has been thrown around as a possibility for the “Nigerian Nightmare,” Usman claims the Irishman is ducking him; and despite McGregor’s name value, it would be hard to justify his getting a title shot after beating a No. 13-ranked lightweight in Donald Cerrone. An obvious solution to this problem would manifest itself if Burns were to finish Woodley in emphatic fashion, giving him back-to-back stoppages over two welterweight greats in the span of two months. As long as “Durinho” sustained little damage and gave a halfway decent post-fight interview, his already rising popularity among fans would make it easy for the UFC to book a title fight against Usman for its July 11 card, giving the promotion options should Masvidal be dead set on a Diaz rematch.
UFC 250: The COVID-19 PPV Bump
The UFC 250 pay-per-view on June 6 has far more high-profile matchups overall but a somewhat lackluster main event. The card features a men’s bantamweight smorgasbord: Aljamain Sterling vs. Cory Sandhagen, Cody Garbrandt vs. Raphael Assuncao, Sean O’Malley vs. Eddie Wineland and Brian Kelleher vs. Cody Stamann. However, slated as the headliner is women’s two-division champion Amanda Nunes defending her featherweight belt against Felicia Spencer, who rebounded from a decision loss to Cristiane Justino with a first-round finish over Zarah Fairn dos Santos in February. There is no question that from a meritocratic standpoint “The Lioness” deserves to headline a pay-per-view event, and simply surviving Justino’s onslaught to a decision makes Spencer a game competitor. Still, given the shallowness of the women’s 145-pound weight class, the fight seems more like squash match than an intriguing bout. Add that to the fact that the last time Nunes was the A-side to a PPV card was at UFC 224, which was estimated to have sold around 85,000 buys, and a few UFC execs might be nervous when it comes to the UFC 250 buy rate.
Even so, the promotion’s most recent pay-per-view should give it some hope. Estimates have UFC 249 grossing around 700,000 buys—numbers that haven’t been seen without McGregor or Jon Jones in the title hunt for quite some time. As I originally pointed out in my formulated guess as to what the UFC 249 buy rate would be (I was way off), Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson were not big historical draws on television or pay-per-view, but given the pandemic and lack of sports, there was increased consumer interest both domestically and especially internationally. Whether or not Nunes’ star has grown enough to increase customer purchases since her last main event two years ago remains unknown, but in an ideal world, the COVID-19 bump the UFC saw on May 9 will still be a factor one month later and generate similar revenue regardless.
UFC Fight Night 172: A Wild Night of Violence
Let’s be honest. Unlike its two predecessors, UFC Fight Night 172 on June 13 is about as shallow as a kiddie pool. Although there are recognizable names being showcased, none jump out as must-see fights other than perhaps Marvin Vettori vs. Karl Roberson, which has more to do with the drama surrounding the bout than anything else. When Jessica Eye vs. Cynthia Calvillo is your headliner, even the hardcore fans consider skipping the card and watching highlights.
From the UFC’s perspective, however, this event simply comes down to upholding its contractual obligations to ESPN. As long as the promotion puts on a specified number of fight cards per year, it brings in a whopping $750 million from its media rights contract with the Disney-owned sports broadcast network. With that in mind, the best-case scenario for the UFC here is a wild night of violence, where crazy must-see wars and highlight-reel finishes punish any of those who dared to skip the show. Not only would it remind fans that name-value does not always directly correlate to entertainment, but because there are so few sports actively putting on events at the moment, an exciting night of fights would dominate the news cycle, giving the UFC increased exposure for a relatively low-expectation card. If ESPN’s Top 10 is dominated by clips from the show, that’s a win for the UFC.
« Previous Conor McGregor Won’t Receive Welterweight Title Shot, UFC Boss Says Next Conor McGregor Responds to Anderson Silva’s 80-Kilogram Catchweight Offer: ‘I Accept’ »