A random, off the cuff question from my MMA Sentinel partner in crime, Steph Daniels, ‘Is Jon Jones the UFC’s third biggest Pay-Per-View draw?’ led me down a surprising rabbit hole. When I consulted my magical spreadsheet that I used to chart the UFC’s Pay-Per-View trends over the past 6 years, I discovered something surprising.
There are only four fighters in the UFC who have drawn over 500,000 buys on average over the past two years or so. There are perhaps another three who regularly draw over 400,000. Overall, there are only 8 fighters who average over 300,000 buys. This is a significant drop from the high point of 2009. Is the UFC failing to create new draws?
First of all, there’s an important caveat to all of this. I only count headliners. The strength of the undercard is ignored completely. In some instances this can skew things a little, a very strong co-main event can account for an extra 50,000 – 100,000 buys or more, but properly accounting for that in an objective manner is impossible, so I avoid that pitfall by only counting headliners. The UFC doesn’t release PPV buy numbers, so for the most part these are estimates from industry insiders and analysts such as Dave Meltzer.
Let’s begin with a breakdown of the UFCs biggest draws, based on 2011 up to and including UFC 163 this year:
Georges St. Pierre: 2,400,000 Total over 3 fights, 800,000 Avg buys/fight
Anderson Silva: 2,985,000 Total over 5 fights, 597,000 Avg buys/fight
Jon Jones: 3,150,000 Total over 6 fights, 525,000 Avg buys/fight
Junior Dos Santos: 1,475,000 Total over 3 fights, 490,000 Avg buys/fight
Cain Velasquez: 940,000 Total over 2 fights, 470,000 Avg buys/fight
Ronda Rousey: 450,000 Total over 1 fight, 450,000 Avg buys/fight
That’s every* UFC star who draws, on average, over 400,000 buys per fight in the headliner spot. I have avoided counting fighters who only headlined against champions, such as Chael Sonnen, due to the lack of evidence that they can draw on their own merits.
*Nick Diaz is excluded from this list as when not fighting the UFC’s top draw, Georges St Pierre, his average is below 400,000.
Something immediately apparent is that every one of these fighters, with the exception of Ronda Rousey, are in the top 4 weight classes. None of the bottom four weight classes draw over 400,000 buys.
The numbers for lighter weight class draws in the headlining spot are as follows:
Frankie Edgar: 1,385,000 Total over 5 fights, 277,000 Avg buys/fight
Jose Aldo: 730,000 Total over 3 fights, 243,333 Avg buys/fight
BJ Penn: 540,000 Total over 2 fights*, 270,000 Avg buys/ fight
Urijah Faber: 585,000 Total over 2 fights, 292,500 Avg buys/fight
None of the other lighter weight fighters have had more than one headlining spot. *One of BJ Penn’s fights took place at welterweight
There is also a third category of draws who were not champion during this time period (technically BJ Penn and Urijah Faber can also fit here). Generally these are former champions, or fighters with a personality that catches people’s attention. There are a number of fighters who fit this description and make great co-main even fighters, such as Michael Bisping and Chael Sonnen.
It’s rare for these fighters to headline on their own merits, but there are a couple who do so:
Rashad Evans: 1,160,000 Total over 3 fights, 386,666 Avg buys/fight*
Nick Diaz: 1,580,000 Total over 3 fights, 526,666 Avg buys/ fight**
*A note about these draws. Evans’ latest fight against Dan Henderson drew just 150,000 buys, the lowest in recent history.
**Nick Diaz’ average when he’s not fighting GSP is more like 350,000 buys.
Up until about 2011/2012, the floor for the UFC was considered to be about 300,000 buys. That is, whatever the UFC put on, they could expect to get at least 300,000 buys. As of 2013, the number of fighters who average over 300,000 buys is about 8. The new floor is about 150,000. At first glance this is worrying, but there are a few things to consider. First, 8 fighters is enough to ensure every Pay-Per-View has at least one of those draws present. Fighters on average fight 2.2 times per year, and the UFC typically has about 14 Pay-Per-Views per year. The 300,000 floor is reasonable.
The counter to this is Nick Diaz is essentially retired, Anderson Silva just lost, which may harm his drawing power, and Rashad Evans’ drawing power seems to have faded. On the other hand, the UFC is in a strong position with its top 6 draws in general. GSP is young enough to fight for another 5 years, as are Cain Velasquez, Junior Dos Santos, Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey. Anderson Silva will likely be around for another two years. The longer a UFC champion fights, the higher his Pay-Per-View ceiling typically becomes, so the UFC should have 5 fighters drawing 500,000 buys plus for the next 5 years or so.
The UFC is also doing a reasonable job of building up secondary draws. Even when he’s not the champ, Junior Dos Santos draws reasonably well and should be around for a while. It’s very possible new middleweight champ, Chris Weidman, will become a good draw on the back of defeating Anderson Silva. Alexander Gustafsson’s recent showing against Jon Jones should increase the stock of both men; Anderson Silva’s Pay-Per-View buys skyrocketed after he almost lost against Chael Sonnen.
There are a number of marketable young fighters coming through the ranks at the moment. Rory MacDonald at welterweight, Conor McGregor at lightweight/featherweight, Anthony Pettis at lightweight, and more. Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson look likely to have a rivalry that could buoy the light heavyweight division for a couple of years to come, as do Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos at heavyweight. Middleweight is in a state of flux, but strong performances from Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida at that weight class could present the opportunity for a number of strong draws to emerge there.
The UFC is wisely using FOX to build up the lighter weight classes; 155lbs and under contains a number of potential break out stars who could capture the casual fans imagination. While there is likely to be a transition period before potential draws settle, there is a strong chance those divisions become solid draws in the 400,000+ buys range within the next 2-3 years. The heavier weight divisions having relatively young champions also bodes well for continued drawing power.
The UFC is still trying to build new stars following on from the Liddell/Tito era and the Lesnar era, but progress is being made at this point and the lull should continue to reverse course over the coming two years. The FOX deal, worth an estimated $100 million per year, has reduced Zuffa’s reliance on Pay-Per-View, which is affording them the luxury of investing in future stars and divisions. While the relatively small number of fighters who can draw over 300,000 buys regularly is concerning, the trends point to that number rising rather than falling for the first time in a couple of years.
To see an analysis of the UFC's Pay Per View buyrate trends over the last 6 years, check out this article.