Dave Meltzer breaks it down in the must-read Wrestling Observer (subscription required):
It appears the effects of overexposure have hit for UFC. In the last few weeks, the Countdown to UFC 118, which was a marquee show with a title match plus Randy Couture vs. James Toney, did 293,000 viewers, an all-time low. The one hour Spike special before that PPV did a 0.83 rating, an all-time record low for that show (although it was hurt badly by the Andre Winner vs. Nik Lentz fight as so many people turned that fight off that it killed momentum to build the ratings, but even at best it would have done well below average for the series). The 8/1 Versus show (Jon Jones vs. Vladimir Matyushenko) did a 0.86 rating, down 25% from the prior show on Versus. WEC ratings continue to inch slowly down nearly every show, with the 8/18 show doing an 0.3 rating and 316,000 viewers, the lowest number for a live show to date.
One bad rating means nothing. Two becomes relevant. When it becomes five out of five in such a short period of time, it is a pattern. Now the Countdown show does have an excuse in the sense it was not promoted well. I didn't even know it was airing except that I was wondering when it would air and checked the UFC web site, and I watch a decent amount of Spike and theoretically should get a press release listing when it airs and never got it. And the WEC number is part of a long-term pattern that didn't just come up, and was only slightly lower than previous shows.
Overexposure was always going to hit the smaller events before it would hurt the big events. It may never hurt the big events a few times a year, because even now with boxing interest way down, the few big event fights per year actually do great PPV business. But rank-and-file shows are way down.
Zach Arnold points out that the UFC production formula is stale and that their team is overworked:
The truth is that UFC is having some rough patches right now in terms of making new stars and they better figure out a new, detailed, creative way of reutilizing their current television properties to create new stars by giving fighters more exposure on the right platforms. It sounds simple, but it's not. It's clear that UFC's brand strength gives them about a 1.0 on cable (and TUF is around a 1.2-1.3 rating for a floor). The company needs to change its vision on how they make new stars and, more importantly, not only how many shows they run but the type of production values (both live and on television) that they use. If you watch a UFC show in 2010, it's the same on TV as it was several years ago. (WWE is even worse - it looks like they have been stuck on autopilot for the last decade.) Change is needed on many fronts and in order to implement change, the production crew that works for Zuffa needs some time to breathe in order to come up with a new game plan. When you run as many shows as UFC is running, nobody really has any time to recalibrate their operations - it's just one show after another while struggling to catch your breathe. The oversaturation of product, both on PPV and on cable television, is playing a role in all of this. Not a dramatic one (yet), but certainly it is playing a role.
I've long felt the UFC was in a plateau or consolidation phase.
The era of explosive growth ended in 2009 with UFC 100. Since then fans have been bombarded with so much MMA product that it's difficult even for the most obsessed to keep up with it all.
Between Spike being the UFC all the time channel, Versus showing UFC and WEC, Strikeforce on Showtime (and briefly on CBS), FSN's now you see it now you don't airing of Bellator, and HDNet's airing of DREAM, KOTC, Sengoku, MFC, etc, there's a glut of MMA programming on the wire.
Even the majority of casual fans who are UFC fans only and not MMA fans are finding it impossible to keep up with the UFC's offerings on Spike TV and Versus.
I wrote yesterday about the weak ticket price performance of UFC 119 and the high likelihood that it will establish a new floor for PPV buy rates for a live UFC event.
The thing to keep in mind about the UFC business model -- which is a direct copy of the WWE business model -- is that cable TV is used to give away content that in turn promotes the PPV content. However, after five straight years of ever-increasing UFC content on Spike TV (and now on Versus too), the promotional channel is so glutted that any specific show has little impact.
Part of the problem is the poor job Spike and the UFC are doing of hyping their product. Few of the casual fans I spoke to knew when UFC Fight Night 22 was airing or even that it was happening at all.
And though my gang of casual fan friends enjoyed last night's episode of TUF (and loved Bruce LeRoy) and were pumped for UFC 119 after watching the Countdown, they hadn't been aware that there was a new season or a UFC coming up this weekend.
One happy bi-product of this phenomenon is that when the UFC catches cold, MMA catches pneumonia. The current/coming slump in demand for MMA product (which is distinct from the slowing of growth in demand we've been documenting for the last year) might very well wipe out competing MMA brands Strikeforce and Bellator.
I think the UFC might be happy to maintain current PPV levels -- which are extremely profitable -- for the next several years as a way of allowing the sport and the brand to sink more deeply into American culture while minimizing controversy. But eroding ratings for their primary promotional outlets are nothing but bad news.