Do Poor PPV Numbers for UFC 106 Mean the UFC Is Running Out of Steam?

Dana White planned on a big autumn and winter for the UFC anchored by superstar Brock Lesnar.

In his Wrestling Observer Newsletter (subscription only), Dave Meltzer is reporting disappointing pay per view estimates for UFC 106 -- he is currently projecting a final count for 106 of 360,000 to 375,000 compared to an expected 500,000 for UFC 104. The news here is that an event featuring two proven PPV draws in Tito Ortiz and Forrest Griffin was expected to outperform an event featuring Lyoto Machida and Shogun Rua.

Meltzer writes:

The 106 number is looking to be so much lower than even the most pessimistic expectations going in. My feeling is it’s a combination of the weak Countdown show, bad time slot of the Countdown show, and that 105 was pushed as a major event on Spike, was free, and a one week build for a PPV isn’t going to work unless you’ve got a match people wanted to see. Clearly, people both believed Ortiz was done and don’t care and the burials of him clearly hurt him, and Griffin did himself incredible harm with that performance against Anderson Silva and everyone saw that fight. I thought the Griffin like ability factor overcomes his losses, because he’s lost before and drawn big after. But his leaving the ring and it wasn’t losing a gutsy fight which Griffin can do forever and draw, but looking like he was completely out of his league against a great fighter, made people no longer see him as a PPV main event fighter. ... it’s the first time I’d go so far as to say the casual fan base rejected two big-name fighters in a main event position since this got on television in 2005.

If this is an overexposure issue, the most insidious thing historically about overexposure is that by the time the signs are apparent of the beginnings of a fall, it’s usually at the point where the momentum downward is already dangerous. But really, until we get a match with two stars with momentum, it’s hard to say exactly where we are. The Memphis show is a very good card when it comes to depth, but I don’t see Penn vs. Sanchez as a main event that would do good numbers. Jan. 2 is a disaster as a PPV event with so many matches falling through. The Super Bowl weekend show is also a good card that lack a big main event. Australia has the drawback of being in Australia so you won’t get a lot of U.S. mainstream coverage and it also doesn’t have that killer main event. We’re really not taking about a huge draw fighting until March with St. Pierre, and he’s got the issue that nobody in the world believes Dan Hardy can beat him and it’s too early to know what kind of back-up he’s going to have.

Zach Arnold sounded alarm bells earlier:

Overexposure is a big issue for the UFC. The public itself is not tired of UFC, but rather selective in which fights they want to pay for. Certainly, UFC 100 with Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre did great PPV business. BJ Penn vs. Kenny Florian did great business, too, in Philadelphia. However, since mid-August, the company's business has significantly cooled down after reaching an apex last July. The big question regarding UFC 100 was whether or not it was a preview of how big the sport could get under Zuffa management or whether or not this truly was the mountain top. While the jury may still be out on that answer, the initial signs indicate that the 1.6 millionish PPV buys the company did for UFC 100 was more or less the company's zenith.

...
The catch 22 for UFC is that in order to expand, they have to run more shows in more markets. This has created a wave of television product that has not only taxed the viewers but taxed the company's employees as well. It takes a toll on the production staff and in many ways UFC is facing a similar problem to what WWE's production staff faces. Because they are so busy putting up and taking down equipment for shows that it becomes harder and harder to sit back and evaluate what exactly is going on and how to give everything a new face lift when you have a show to put on every 3 or 4 weeks. And ultimately the man responsible for micro-managing the production of UFC is Dana White.

...
There will always be injuries in the fight game. There will always be political battles between management and talent. However, the easiest way to minimize this problem is by not running as many shows. UFC finds itself in a position where they have to run a lot of shows in order to keep fighters busy, but it becomes a more difficult task to make new stars and be able to take some time and show some patience in the star-making process when you have to promote a show every three weeks. When most of your time is spent on the road and not at the office, that can be a real challenge.

UFC's gamble right now is expanding their schedule to run many international shows, shows that in the future it will pay off with big dividends. The problem with that strategy is that it requires talent that is healthy to fight and right now UFC is running out of warm bodies to make the strategy work.

They have reportedly canceled at least one show, per Jonathan Snowden:

It's carnage out there, but a short staffed UFC could have it much worse. Originally a show was scheduled for Dublin in January. That one was wisely cancelled, a prudent move for a promotion facing a talent crisis. But there was no real consideration given to combining UFC 108 and 109 to provide fans with a single card worthy of the UFC name.

Instead they will trot out Rashad Evans-Thiago Silva at UFC 108 and Randy Couture-Mark Coleman at UFC 109 and pretend they are real main events, instead of merely attractive feature bouts for the second from the top slot. If these shows flop, don't blame the matchmakers. It's the curse of Cain that caused the chaos.

In August during the heat of the Fedor bidding war, the UFC was full of hubris and was planning a hectic fall schedule counting on Brock Lesnar vs Shane Carwin, Rampage Jackson vs Rashad Evans, B.J. Penn vs Diego Sanchez, Cain Velasquez vs Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Anderson Silva vs Vitor Belfort to headline a packed string of must see events. Unfortunately Penn vs Sanchez is the only fight that looks like it will happen in the near term.

The better part of valor would have probably been to cancel not just one event in Ireland but at least two events, maybe three. They've done a brilliant job of building the UFC brand and training fans to expect great fights at every UFC event. This has freed them from the traditional fight promoter's dependence on star attractions to some extent. But ultimately as Meltzer pointed out, cards must be headlined by stars in compelling fights. At this point, beyond UFC 107's lightweight title there is nothing on the horizon until the May Machida-Rua rematch that is a true must see fight.

Time will tell if the UFC has permanently stunted their momentum.

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