Zuffa in Trouble Part 1: Weak Ratings for WEC 47

Without the drawing power of Urijah Faber, the WEC flounders on Versus.

Throughout the fall and winter the UFC suffered from a string of bad luck, contract disputes and injuries to popular champions but refused to cut back on the number of events they held. Some of us warned that they were training their fans to only tune in for the biggest events.

Meanwhile Zuffa pressed ahead with plans for little brother org World Extreme Cagefighting to air a Pay Per View in 2010, despite the promotion not having succeeded in building a single draw fighter other than Urijah Faber.

MMA Junkie has the details on the WEC's poor numbers:

This past weekend's WEC 47 event on Versus scored a 0.46 household rating and 373,000 viewers.

The ratings were down sharply - 42 percent in all - compared to World Extreme Cagefighting's prior show, WEC 46 (640,000 viewers), which took place in January and benefited from proven draw Urijah Faber and a main-event title-unification bout between Benson Henderson and Jamie Varner.

WEC 45, which took place this past December, drew 330,000 viewers.

Michael David Smith breaks out the meaning of that a bit and the unhealthy reliance the WEC has on fading star Urijah Faber:

Faber is, by far, the WEC's biggest draw, and the success of his pay-per-view bout against Jose Aldo next month will go a very long way toward determining what kind of promotion the WEC is going forward. 

...WEC 47 got a 0.46 household rating and 373,000 viewers on Versus, a 42 percent decline in viewership from WEC 46, which had Faber on the card. Overall, using the MMA Junkie numbers, in the last two years WEC cards that had Faber on them have averaged 936,000 viewers on Versus. WEC cards without Faber averaged 479,000 viewers.    

Zach Arnold draws some conclusions:

First, the piss-poor rating should be cause for concern with UFC's upcoming March 21st rally with Brandon Vera vs. Jon Jones. America is all about branding and despite years and years of Comcast trying to push Versus as a major network, American viewers simply aren't buying into it. ESPN and its family of networks continue its dominance and Spike TV had long track records and programming that built those brands over many years. Versus has tried desperately with WEC and the NHL to try to boost ratings, but it simply hasn't worked. UFC is a strong brand but it's unlikely that they are going to build up Versus long-term like WWE helped build up Spike TV in the late 90s and early 00's.

Second, WEC's poor ratings not only indicate that the company is in a slide, but it also shows that Strikeforce has won a small battle amongst the hardcore fans. When Strikeforce on Showtime, a pay channel, is outdrawing Zuffa's child on a semi-non-premium cable channel. So, the idea that Strikeforce should move their 4/17 Nashville event to 4/24 to try to screw with the buyrate for the WEC debut PPV would be a reactionary one and one that wouldn't be productive for Scott Coker. Strikeforce needs to worry about expanding their base instead of fighting with Zuffa's Jr. company over hardcore fans. Running on 4/17 instead of 4/24 also avoids competition against the Super Six boxing series on Showtime.

Arnold gets to the bigger implications of the weak WEC ratings: the potential that UFC on Versus will be a bust.

Zuffa originally acquired the WEC and signed the deal with Versus as a way to keep competitors like the IFL from getting aired on the cable network. That deal -- which reportedly precludes the UFC from using the WEC as a true feeder league to develop prospects and give veterans some work on their way down the career ladder. 

Instead they came up with the very self-limiting brand strategy of focusing solely on the smallest weight divisions, entirely killing the WEC's light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight divisions. Additionally, the pretense that the WEC is a stand-alone organization has created the pressure on them to move to PPV to make money and give their few stars (ok, Urijah Faber) better pay days.

Now, with Versus' parent company Comcast's acquisition of NBC, Zuffa has actually deepened their ties to  Versus, signing a deal to air two live UFC fighting events on the network in 2010. The first of these will feature Jon Jones vs Brandon Vera on March 21

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As our own Leland Roling has pointed out, Zuffa is focused on the long-term potential of the Versus relationship, rather than looking for short-term ratings:

Interestingly enough, most pundits and analysts believe that Comcast will try to vie for a stake of the mainstream sports market by pushing Versus up against sports' giant ESPN:

But Comcast's impending acquisition of NBC Universal will certainly set off an effort to turn Versus into a viable alternative, if not a full-fledged competitor, to ESPN, The New York Times's Richard Sandomir writes. Under Comcast's ownership, Versus has transformed from the Outdoor Life Network to OLN, then, in 2006, into its current incarnation.

Leland elaborated on that here:

Dana White and company will be likely be hoping for an end to the stand-off as the ratings can only improve with the potential for a larger fanbase. While high ratings are the quantifiable goal in the short term, the UFC likely has a long term goal that most fans haven't really thought or cared to think about. The WEC could use the boost in their viewership, but the NBC-Comcast merger is a much more likely catalyst to such a deal.

Why? This could be a way for the UFC to emerge as an option for NBC in the future if they happen to re-brand Versus into a standard sports cable network. The promise of 2-4 events per year with the highest grossing MMA promotion and a sister promotion that can put on a show per month with some of the more exciting weight classes in the sport is some good leverage to start.

With deals already in place with the WEC and the UFC, the merger between the media giants has put Zuffa in prime position to explode onto network television and as a possible regular on a cable sports network that could sit on a basic cable package next to ESPN. There is much more at stake than the WEC's ratings, and the lineup of fights for the first UFC event on Versus should be an indication of how much more important this really is than just the WEC. 

My argument is that Zuffa and the UFC have been too focused on playing three-dimensional chess with international expansion, multiple U.S. television deals and the WEC's PPV gambit to focus on their bread and butter: UFC PPVs.

We'll talk about that in Part II: The Weak Showing of UFC 110.

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