Managing Director of International Development UFC Marshall Zelaznik (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
When Stefan Struve vs Stipe Miocic was announced as the main event for the UFC's annual trip to the United Kingdom (Chris Leben vs Mark Munoz headlined UFC 138 in Birmingham, England in November 2011), the British Isles groaned with disappointment.
However when it was apparent the two developing Heavyweights were headlining a UFC on Fuel card, and the 10,000 capacity Capital FM Arena in Nottingham, England would play host, there's not a lot to complain about -- at least from an American television perspective. And hey, If it's a UFC on Fuel card, at least that should mean tickets to see it live won't cost such a premium, right? The £75 - £225 range ($118 - $353 USD approximately) would suggest otherwise.
Of the events this year to grace the Capital FM arena, UFC on Fuel is the most expensive with its starting price tickets between double to triple the value of other events, such as the WWE RAW World Tour, and national / international comedy and pop music headliners ranging from Eddie Izzard and Michael McIntyre to Jessie J and Cheryl Cole, all of whom have a much higher profile and reach in the live entertainment market here than the UFC does currently.
The comparisons aren't perfect, as the Pop Music and Comedy shows won't be mammoth 5 hour plus events, though the WWE event probably won't be too far off and will always include the top stars in a program as part of its world tour. WWE fans will get to see top workers in John Cena, CM Punk, Randy Orton et al, yet you'll struggle to find the hardest of the hardcore UFC fans to be as interested in Struve vs Miocic at 3 times the ticket value.
Even comparing the prices to recent PPV events such as Junior dos Santos vs Frank Mir, ticket prices started at $75, some $40 less, and Nottingham by no means is considered the 'Las Vegas' of England.
Carl Froch, a big name in British boxing and a world champion took on Lucian Bute in this same venue in Nottingham, and tickets started at nearly half of the cheapest UFC on Fuel tickets. UFC's Heavyweight attraction features two fighters who will probably never come close to achieving what Froch has, relative to their excellence in their respective combat sports, so why the disparity in price to see them?
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The fact is, if the UFC is able to continue to sell out shows -- or at least what they consider a 'sell out' -- at the prices they set, they're going to continue to do so, especially if they can continue to pawn off match ups of decreasing worth as they have done consistently since UFC 70. As it stands, the pinnacle that was UFC 75 in London that featured the first UFC and Pride FC title unification fight, between Rampage Jackson and Dan Henderson, may never be reached again on UK shores. It's hard to imagine the UFC would even bring another card to rival the BJ Penn vs Joe Stevenson title fight at UFC 80 in Newcastle.
The difficulty the UK has in hosting fight cards of worth is likely based on several, complex factors. The UK has never been a successful Pay Per View market for any live sports programming, and the greed in Boxing basically caused Sky Box Office -- the biggest provider of PPV content in the UK -- to drop sport and only offer movie rentals and the occasional music or WWE event as a result.
UFC is finding success with television deals in places like Brazil and China, and is aiming for similar success in India. All of these places have much higher populations than the UK though, and in the case of India and China higher populations than anywhere else on the face of this planet. The UK's 62 million people just doesn't compare.
Canada though has a population of almost half at around 34 million, and yet is a monster market for the UFC. Canada however is geared up for PPV and shares similar timezones with the USA where the majority of shows take place. The timezone difference of the UK and Europe is perhaps a bigger issue, as Dana White's theory of a live UFC event being DVR proof doesn't factor in certain audiences in parts of the world struggling to stay up past 3am when the main card of a UFC event might typically start. An attempt at 3am PPVs with USA-esque price points would be disastrous.
Perhaps the biggest thing holding the UFC back from giving the UK cards of higher worth is its current television deal. ESPN UK is just not watched in enough homes for the UFC to take that next big step in growing the British Market, and is a subscriber based model similar to Showtime or HBO, rather than a cable or network deal like the ones in different parts of the world.
With ESPN losing all of its Premiership Football (Soccer) coverage in the next year, a big chunk of their audience could go with it. When I wrote on the differences between ESPN UK and Sky Sports last year, there was almost a 4:1 difference in subscribers in Sky Sports' favor. Now that Sky and BT have taken the biggest global commercial sport out of ESPN's hands, that ratio could well double.
It's possible when UFC first signed with ESPN a few years ago they made the mistake of looking at how many homes it was available in compared to Sky Sports, rather than how many currently subscribe to either. As it stands its hard to say how much of a success the UFC has been on ESPN, and with UFC brass expressing their annoyance and displeasure with ESPN in America for various reasons, they could be looking to get out as soon as the ESPN UK contract is up at the end of this summer -- possibly before the UFC event in Nottingham happens.
The trouble is, because Sky have paid through the nose for the Premiership Football coverage in a deal worth £2.28 billion (combined with BT's purchase of rights, the total rights fees have increased approximately 41% from £1.78 billion to £3.02 billion according to the Wall Street Journal), they may not be looking to spend any more on a UFC broadcast rights deal than they have in the past, and could possibly want to spend less.
UFC is arguably stagnating on ESPN in the UK, and any growth they've seen from Setanta to ESPN has likely been negligible. If UFC is serious about growth in the UK and taking that next big step, even a deal with Sky for a little less than they would have liked in the short term could end up benefiting them a lot more in the long term, especially with the cross-promotional muscle Sky can offer much like Fox does with them in the USA. The quality and frequency of cards in the UK would likely improve, too.