Mixed martial arts turned 20 this year but it seems we're just now hitting the awkward years. The second decade of MMA history opened with a boom era in Japan that saw MMA events among the most popular television spectacles of the era. The middle part of the decade saw the Japanese boom turn to bust while the UFC suddenly exploded into the American popular consciousness.
Late in the decade the UFC bought up many of its biggest competitors (Pride FC, Strikeforce, the WEC, the WFA, Affliction) and most of the rest collapsed on their own (EliteXC, Dream, Sengoku). With the UFC signing an epic deal with Fox TV to bring them to American broadcast television and breaking through big in Brazil, many expected the sport was entering a new phase of even larger popularity. If that's the case, recent numbers don't bear that out.
Dave Meltzer is reporting that the two most recent UFC pay-per-view events, UFC 165 featuring Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson and UFC 166 featuring a rubber match between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos each did in the 300,000 to 325,000 buy range in the North American market.
Meltzer speculated as to the reasons:
There is no question (UFC 165) was hurt by two different factors. The first and most important was it came a week after the Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Canelo Alvarez boxing match. That fight did 2.2 million buys, the second biggest of all-time.
While UFC and boxing have different audiences, the Mayweather fight transcended boxing and became a cultural event like boxing has only seen a few times since the heyday of Mike Tyson. There is little doubt that a large number of UFC regular big event buyers had either paid $75 for, or gotten together with friends for the boxing match. Faced with another $45 or $55 bill a week later, and having already spent the prior Saturday watching fights with buddies, it's not just understandable, but expected that the UFC number would be down from usual.
It's UFC 166 that is more concerning. ... The Houston show did go head-to-head with the MLB playoffs, college football and HBO boxing.
More than 9 million people saw the first Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos fight on television in the United States alone two years ago in the company's debut on FOX.
It was Velasquez's only professional loss, a one-punch knockout in barely one minute. First impressions are the most lasting. It may be that no matter how dominant Velasquez has been since, that to millions of Americans who never saw him before, he's still that guy with all that hype they saw laying on the canvas and not getting up. Perhaps they simply refuse to believe he's really that good.
Some would jump to a conclusion and say it's a rapidly changing business and people are far less apt to purchase pay-per-views, unless it's a big blockbuster event that really captures the sports world. But UFC's business from February through July contradicts that. The UFC had a great deal of success with shows headlined by fighters with more personality, but were not the same level of match ups when it comes to the inarguable top two in a division of the era.
MMA Payout also had some thoughts:
There is an argument that the promotional vehicles (or lack thereof) for these PPVs have contributed to the low PPV buy rates. It's a plausible argument. FS1 is still in its infancy stages. This can be reflected by the low ratings for the UFC 165 Primetime shows which had its highest viewer output at 158K viewers. But that does not address the fact that the UFC is still getting a lot of time on Fox's NFL broadcasts. The question is whether there should be more done to promote these events through Fox and/or elsewhere.
It seems obvious to me that the moves from Spike TV where preview shows for UFC PPVs sometimes drew over a million viewers to FX/Fuel TV and now FS1/FS2 has dramatically reduced the UFC's promotional reach.
It's also worth noting that when UFC 99 did 360,000 buys in the summer of 2009 that was considered the "floor" for UFC ppv buys. It was an event taking place in Germany and airing in the U.S. in the mid-afternoon and featuring a non-title fight between Rich Franklin and Wanderlei Silva. If you'd told me in 2009 that four years later the UFC HW and LHW titles would draw comparable PPV numbers I'd have laughed in your face.
As for recent TV ratings, check out these numbers:
Bellator 105 520,000 viewers (Spike TV, Friday prime time)
UFC Fight Night 30 122,000 viewers (FS2, Saturday early afternoon)
World Series of Fighting 6 161,000 viewers (NBC Sports, Saturday night)
These were the worst numbers we've seen for a weekend of MMA in recent memory and were among the worst numbers fielded by each of the three promotions. There are reasons for each of them including: Bellator having marshalled all its biggest fights for this weekend's aborted Bellator 106 ppv which now airs free on Spike TV; the UFC's return to the former Fuel network taking place in England and airing early in the day; and college football and the baseball World Series.
Nonetheless, it's very clear that the American television market is flooded with more MMA than many people care to tune in for.
We'll have to see how the UFC's two remaining PPVs of the year do. UFC 167 featuring Georges St-Pierre vs Johny Hendricks and UFC 168 featuring Chris Weidman vs. Anderson Silva 2 and Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate 2 are both expected to do very well indeed, but I would banish any irrational exuberance from my PPV projections.
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