So suggests Dave Meltzer (subscription required):
UFC has not made a public announcement of the buys for UFC 91, but privately, Dana White has told people the number is right at the 1 million mark. Two others have confirmed that at least this is the number UFC is talking about internally, with the actual figure being pegged at 1,010,000 buys. It was stated that if they do well in late reported buys, they have a solid to good shot at beating the 1,050,000 mark set in 2006 by Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz, and are not publicly saying anything because they want to announce it was the biggest ever, which at this point, is something they can’t say. Keep in mind our trending patterns came in at 800,000 to 850,000 buys. Lesnar seems to be the one person whose drawing power never gets fully reflected in early trending patterns.
If this number is accurate, based on Couture’s contract and his PPV bonuses, he would be earning $2.61 million in total for the show. The percentages in Lesnar’s contract are not known, but sources close to the situation have said they are a little lower than Couture’s. However, Lesnar made $200,000 based on winning the fight that Couture didn’t, and both men were guaranteed $250,000 as their base pay if they lost and the show did less than 175,000 buys. In addition, if the number is accurate, Lesnar, headlining three shows that did an estimated 2.2 million in total buys, will finish slightly below Ortiz in 2006 (2.25 million total buys) as the biggest single year drawing card in company history. If the number is accurate, it would also be the biggest money total gross in UFC history because of the $44.95 price instead of $39.95 for Liddell/Ortiz. Between the live show and the PPV, the Liddell-Ortiz total revenue would have been $47.33 million and Lesnar-Couture would have been $50.21 million. It wouldn’t be at the level of the big boxing shows because they are $54.95 and the live gates are larger. The biggest WWE show, which should have been the 2007 Wrestlemania, would have been about $55 million (because foreign buys are priced so much lower than domestic, as that show did 1,250,000 buys, with about 65% at a $49.95 domestic price).
There's quite a bit to unpack here. First, an amazing number for the UFC given the late push this fight received internally, although clearly the language used to describe this fight ("biggest fight in UFC history") helped garner mainstream attention and enormous coverage from ESPN. Second, Brock Lesnar is a cash cow (or cash bull?) and seems to either bring with him an audience trained to purchase PPV events where he's featured or intrigue new fans enough to act on their curiosity. Third, this not only helps buoy the UFC bottomline in a difficult market, it also creates a fantastic pivot point to help market 2009's key events like GSP vs. Penn 2. That is, recognizing what a strong mainstream media push can provide with marketable stars - whether or not they are as valuable as Lesnar is obviously up for debate - can further incentivize the UFC to fully exercise resources to market fights, although the decision by ESPN to devote more time and energy to UFC 91 is out of White's hands.
Lastly, unlike the strong numbers for De La Hoya vs. Pacquiao, one does not get the sense that this number at all spells doom or peril for MMA or the UFC. Whereas in boxing there is a great unknown about what lies ahead even for the sport's biggest stars, the UFC has done a far better job of shuffling in new talent while existing talent slowly but surely makes it's way for the retirement door. If anything, one gets a sense of reinvigoration about the UFC and MMA after looking at these figures.
So, congratulations are in order to the UFC for pulling off a very impressive feat. Here's hoping to an even bigger 2009.
Update from Michael Rome: On Wrestling Observer Radio tonight, Dave Meltzer said that the 1,010,000 buy number is confirmed for UFC 91.
The number is actually amazing all things considered. The UFC just let the show sell itself, they did a lot of media but they hardly promoted it as well as they could. There was no "feud" between the fighters, no cross promotion with WWE or TNA, no TUF buildup, and no multi-part series. I recall the level of hype the UFC put together for Hughes-Gracie and Chuck-Tito, and this fight just didn't have the same kind of thing.
So what did it? Maybe it was the ad calling it the biggest fight of all time. Maybe Brock Lesnar, who was able to draw 600k against non-draws, all of a sudden became a mega draw against an established star. Maybe the return of Randy Couture excited all the UFC fans to see Lesnar get beat. Regardless of the reason, they lost to a huge ODLH fight by only 240,000 buys in a year where they did a lot of great buyrates.
All things considered, millions of people saw the UFC 91 card, and it was a card very easy on casual eyes. Tons of quick finishes, a decisive main event crowning a new star, and a rabid crowd.