Following the release of UFC on FOX 11's low overnight ratings, much has been made about the UFC's recent viewership. Although the final FOX numbers came in at a more respectable level, it's still fair to wonder if viewership is declining. Perhaps it's karmic juggernaut competition from Bellator and Spike? Perhaps it's a watered down product served almost every week and sometimes twice a week? Perhaps it's much ado about nothing? Let's take a look and see.
When we examine UFC viewership trends, we're essentially doing a study of product demand. My sports economist colleagues hold an annual conference every year and a few demand studies are always presented. One of the main lessons is that high-quality studies of sporting event demand are very difficult to do, especially when you throw in the small sample sizes we have in MMA.
Think of all the factors that affect UFC viewership. What time of year was it (seasonality)? What other things could occupy people's time and eyeballs (competing events and activities)? What day and time were the fights held? How much and what types of marketing were done (promotion)? Who was fighting and what were the matchups (quality)? What was the significance of the fights or the event (quality, buildup, anticipation)? How many households had access to the channel or pay per view (availability)?
Of course, we can still play around with numbers and see if there's anything to takeaway. This piece doesn't attempt any fancy analytics, instead focusing on charting with explanations. It's way more important to be sound than to be fancy and sometimes the restrictions of models can make things unsound. One of the easiest and simplest ways to think about what's sound is apples-to-apples comparisons.
Let's start a couple years back with the FX and Fuel TV shows. In order to better compare apples to apples, I only show the weekend events. All eight FX events were held on the weekend anyway, but three of the 10 Fuel events were held during the week and are excluded. Events are shown in chronological order from left to right and instead of labeling them by date or event name, I label them by the headliners since they're the ones likely driving most of the consumer traffic.
UFC on FX ran from Jan. 2012 through May 2013. What trend do you see?
I see a pretty stable series of events headlined by solid, but not spectacular, matchups. Viewership slipped the most with the weakest headliner for U.S. audiences (Sotiropoulos vs. Pearson) and it's a crying shame that a title eliminator headlined by little guys Mighty Mouse and Uncle Creepy pulled the second lowest numbers. But demand ramped up with a stronger headliner (Belfort vs. Bisping). Bisping usually draws well and his matchup with Belfort had a ton of buildup, his usual trash talk and would have given him a title shot with Anderson Silva at a time when other contenders were dropping like flies.
UFC on FUEL TV ran from Feb. 2012 through June 2013. If this chart shows a downward trend, I must have eaten wild berries that will make me chase imaginary butterflies into something highly illegal.
There's a gigantic orange invading our wish for apples in this chart. All events were held on a Saturday, but the Thiago Silva, Stefan Struve, Renan Barao and Gegard Mousasi events started in the afternoon (2-4PM Eastern). The Rich Franklin event started at 9AM while the two highest drawing events, Wanderlei Silva and Big Nog, started at night.
Nothing here suggests a downtrend, but this gives a good idea why quality comparisons are almost impossible when examining a small sample of fight data points. Wanderlei and Big Nog were probably the two most popular headliners but was there really no interest in the Franklin card or did the event just get killed by the crappy start time?
FS1 has broadcast 11 events in nine short months with six taking place on Wednesday nights and five taking place on weekends. Let's first look at the Wednesday events.
Since the channel's debut, we've been bombarded with 28 UFC events - a faster pace than we've ever seen before. It would be perfectly understandable if viewership began to slip on a per-event basis, but that's not what we see. Weekday FS1 viewership has been remarkably stable.
Condit vs. Kampmann was the second event on FS1 and took place 11 days after the channel debuted. It probably got a residual benefit from the novelty of the new channel and the strong promotional push from FOX and the UFC in the months leading up to the launch. You could also make a strong argument that it was the best headliner of the group. For the other events it appears that weekday demand on FS1 is consistently drawing core UFC fans who will watch regardless of the headliner, so long as they're of reasonable quality.
The weekend shows on FS1 are a different story. There's much more variance, but we have to discount the debut number. It was opening day for the channel, had a huge promotional push and had "the most stacked card ever on free television!"
Machida vs. Mousasi was a solid Brazilian card that only faced sports competition from NBA All-Star Saturday Night and perhaps some college basketball. (Valentine's Day was the night before so maybe UFC fans did their duty on V-Day and got a real fight pass the following night.)
There's not much evidence of a decline. If anything, it appears the results are more matchup driven on the weekends. People need a good reason to stay in and watch fights or have a fight-centric bar night.
All of which brings us to the UFC on FOX trends. Below is the chart where it's tempting to run a regression or just eyeball it and think, "UFC viewership is declining. There are too many fights on TV. They're watering down their product." Not to say those all can't be true, but what about other factors that might be driving the traffic?
Velasquez vs. Dos Santos wasn't the first MMA event to air on network television, but it was the first for the industry leader. Getting a UFC heavyweight title fight for the first time ever on free television, with an undefeated champion who dethroned Brock Lesnar and an undefeated challenger, was bound to be a ginormous event (and it will forever be a shame that the kick-ass Bendo/Guida co-main event was banished to the Internet).
The second event, in Jan. 2012, probably still had some residual novelty but also featured two title eliminators with extremely popular fighters: Chael Sonnen vs. Michael Bisping in the co-main event for the right to face The Spider and Rashad Evans vs. Phil Davis for the right to challenge Jonny Bones - for Evans, at least.
It's dangerous to use those early numbers as a reference point. When Apple releases a new iPhone, they know they'll get a huge bump the first week as die hard consumers scramble for the new product. They wouldn't compare future weekly sales data to the first week and say they're doing a bad job if the numbers are lower. That would be crazy.
The first two FOX events had that new car smell and also benefited from the oft-described football bump. Viewership dropped off for the third and fourth FOX events, probably moving towards more of a steady state for fight cards that don't overwhelm.
What the UFC did soon thereafter is less frequently mentioned. Ben Henderson's title fight with Frankie Edgar did 375,000 pay per view buys. The immediate rematch did 190,000. The UFC then moved three of his next four bouts to the free FOX cards. Demetrious Johnson didn't even get a chance to headline a pay per view. He won the flyweight title in Sept. 2012 and subsequently had his next three title defenses on FOX. After the first four FOX events, the viewing public was treated to six Henderson/Johnson main events in a row! FOX basically became the Bendo and Mighty Mouse show.
Football season likely helped the first card from each of them, as well as being able to promote another title fight on free television. Also, the Bendo/Diaz main card was legitimately sick. After that we've seen some drop off, but it appears to be based a lot on quality for casual fans and their (strange) preferences against the little guys. Johnson vs. Moraga was an extremely tough sell despite showing a free title fight.
Have the numbers declined in absolute terms? If we do like Apple and discount the early returns a bit, it's closer to flat and is more suggestive that the matchups really matter when casual fans are involved. Then there are the other factors. Events with a title fight get a bump, football tie-ins and promotions help, the little guys take a hit and events with less significance or fighters who aren't big names do worse. Another way of putting this is what do you think would happen to the numbers if another Cain title fight was put on FOX, or if Rashad fought another significant fight for the right to confront a nemesis? Matchups matter.
We see this in the pay per view numbers as well. To try to compare apples to apples, I don't show an overall trend line but instead show four lines, one for each of the UFC's most stable champions over the last few years (Note: Jose Aldo has had six UFC title defenses on pay per view but I only show the cards where he was the headliner).
There isn't an overall downtrend as much as there are declines for underwhelming matchups and increases for more anticipated ones. Economists have found that the perceived closeness of sporting events (the point spread, or money line in fighting) affects their demand and that's probably one of the factors explaining what's going on here.
Georges St-Pierre had his worst pay per view draw when everyone thought he was going to destroy Matt Serra. Jon Jones had his worst draw as an 8:1 favorite against Alexander Gustafsson in his most recent outing. He was a slightly bigger favorite against Belfort but the "old lion" still has some sway. Jose Aldo had his worst headlining numbers as a 5:1 favorite over the Korean Zombie. Anderson Silva was a 13:1 favorite in a non-title, event-saving fight with Stephan Bonnar. His other recent dip was as another big favorite in the rematch of his "losing victory" over Yushin Okami in Rumble on the Rock.
Of course there are numerous other factors at play for each fight. GSP was a big favorite over Dan Hardy and Jake Shields, but Hardy had the trash talk and an unblemished UFC record working and Shields had the UFC champion vs. Strikeforce champion element.
The UFC doesn't seem to have an immediate viewership problem. People will spend their time and money for matchups they like and save it when they're not thrilled - sometimes to their regret. It may have a matchup problem in the near future as divisions that were previously dominated go through a transition. The cycle of generating new stars and developing intriguing contenders will eventually happen but eventually doesn't help today.
The fun part is we get to go along for the ride. We soon get to see what kind of numbers Chris Weidman can pull without Anderson. Glover Texeira may not return fantastic pay per view numbers for Jonny Bones, but there could be two strong matchups afterwards with a Gustafsson remix and a date with Daniel Cormier. The numbers for what should have been Johny Hendricks' first title defense weren't amazing (300,000ish buys), but it took GSP and Anderson a few defenses to pull in strong numbers more consistently.
Core fans have been solid during the week, and on the weekends the UFC's got to give us the fights we want to see in order to earn our time and attention. When they have, the numbers have been there. When they haven't, some of us pull a Cartman and say, "Screw you UFC, I'm going home."