The UFC's current status in TV ratings and on PPV is a hot topic once again in MMA circles following an article by Sports Illustrated's Loretta Hunt examining the promotion in the wake of the Fox deal. The reaction to Loretta's article has been a bit unfair by many, as her history means that many will never allow any criticism by her of the UFC to be seen as anything other than "axe grinding."
I previously took a look at the ratings of The Ultimate Fighter, showed that the ratings were clearly trending downward while still on Spike TV but that the trends on FX had been even worse, even when taking into account the move to Fridays.
Today, we'll examine the current trends in PPV buying and try to come up with a reasonable way to view how an injury to a top star like Georges St. Pierre has impacted the last two "down years."
First, here's a graph that plots all 55 PPVs in order from 2009 to UFC 153. For the sake of giving them the benefit of the doubt, I've plotted 153 at the highest end early estimate of 410,000 buys:
There's no surprise here. The downward trend over this nearly 4 year span is known.
But there are a few interesting stats to take away here:
- In 2010 alone, shows broke 500,000 views 11 times. Even if you remove the two Lesnar shows which did over 500k and the two GSP shows, that's 7 times that cards broke that line.
- 2011 through October 2012 has seen the 500k mark broken a total of 6 times.
- 2009-2010 saw 300k buys or under 3 times. 2011-2012 has seen 300k buys or under 9 times.
It is worth noting that the UFC's average PPV buys are up a measurable amount in 2012 but I don't like to just look at mean number of buys as we're talking 10-20 per year which is a small enough sample size that 1-2 extreme numbers in either direction can alter the mean significantly. Not to mention that it provides a better long term view to look at things as a whole and not broken into years when there's not an actual "reset" pushed in January.
That's why I like to see the numbers on a graph and use a trend line to show a representation of fluctuation over time.
So here is 2011-2012:
You can see that the trend line is almost flat, but it does have a slight upward slant. Basically, they're in the very definition of a "plateau" right now.
Injuries have obviously played a part in things but, personally, I think it's unrealistic to act like the sheer number injuries is the key factor in everything. The biggest fights lost to injury were St. Pierre vs. Nick Diaz, Jose Aldo title defenses and Urijah Faber vs. Dominick Cruz (Faber was the draw in that fight anyway). I suppose you could add Alistair Overeem vs. Junior dos Santos as well, but suspensions are different than injuries and I'm not sure how many more viewers Overeem as challenger would have drawn than the exceptionally well known Frank Mir. Henderson vs. Jones was lost to an injury but we got a Jones fight the next card so that's probably a minor loss of buys at most.
Where things do get interesting is when you realize that it's not the number of injuries that the UFC has facedsince the vast majority of those came in fights that weren't going to draw any PPV buys. It's that there has been one specific injury that has prevented a marked upward trend in buys over the last 24 months.
St. Pierre had been fighting on a schedule where he steps into the cage every 6-7 months. We know he'd have fought Diaz at UFC 137 and based on his standard schedule he'd have likely fought again at UFC 146. While that'd have screwed up the whole "all-heavyweight main card" gimmick, it'd have been GSP in Vegas, which is the market they'd use him in if they weren't putting him in Canada. It'd have also left him exactly on schedule to fight at UFC 154 as he's scheduled to do now.
GSP main-evented shows draw basically 800k reliably without a ton of fluctuation. Upgrading the numbers for 137 and 146 would leave us with something that looks like this:
While the trend isn't massively upward, it's clearly stronger with the presence of GSP. While that is obvious, it's interesting to actually see it graphed out.
Assuming GSP could maintain those 800k buyrates in those two fights and again in November at UFC 154 and then assuming that Dos Santos against Velasquez is able to match JDS' fight with Mir in terms of buys (560k) then we'd be looking at something that looks like this:
That's a very good upward trend and the one thing holding the UFC back from seeing those numbers is St. Pierre's knee. Obviously there'd be some possible fluctuation and this is based on GSP's numbers keeping exactly with the average and JDS vs. Velasquez matching JDS vs. Mir, but neither idea is particularly outlandish.
I guess my main takeaway looking at everything over the past few years is that people should tone down how much the injuries have impacted PPV buys as most of them are zero impact, but that the presence of a superstar like GSP fighting just three times over an 18 month span is the difference between looking at a plateau like the UFC is currently facing on PPV and something where the numbers show a strong upward trend.
There are a lot of things to question about the UFC's status right now. Focusing on Fox and the numbers the promotion is pulling on network TV, on FX and Fuel makes a lot of sense. And I think there are indications that don't show viewer retention at the levels you'd hope for network and cable TV.
But, at least from a PPV perspective, there's nothing indicating serious trouble. And clearly nothing that indicates that the promotion needs to "get away from the PPV model" as so many suggest.