As many MMA fans and pundits have noted, the UFC has flooded the airwaves with events this year (25 as of tonight-and 27 by the end of the month.) This inundation of cards has seemingly watered down the quality of the cards, and as a result, many fans have checked out. Being frustrated with the current situation, and having some free time, I decided to check out if in fact the quality of UFC cards has declined in recent years. I attempted to answer this question by using a rough proxy of card quality, namely, how many top 10 fighters appeared in every UFC event. Unfortunately, the bloodyelbow rankings archives only go back to 2008 (starting from UFC 80), so that was where I started from. The end point in my data set is cards until the end of this month.
Not being able to copy and paste an Excel Chart, this is the most concise and relevant data.
As you can see, at first glance the numbers seem deceiving. Fight cards were of worse quality in 2008-2010, shot up in 2011, peaked in 2013, and plummeted this year.
This is partly a product of the metric I used, but there are also other contextual factors.
One of the first reasons explaining the lower totals from 2008-2010 is the fact that the UFC had only 5 divisions at this point, putting a limit on the number of top 10 fights you could have. As well, the UFC Lightweight Division did not consolidate talent as well as the higher weight classes. This meant at some points the UFC might only have 3/4 of the world's top 10 Lightweights, limiting the number of top 10 fights this division could produce.
In 2011 at UFC 125, the UFC added two more weight classes, Featherweight and Bantamweight, adding to the amount of top 10 fights they could put on. Similarly, in March 2012 the Men's Flyweight Division was added, with the Women's Bantamweight following in early 2013. By having 9 divisions then, the UFC can have a lot more top 10 fights.
You will notice that I've counted UFC on Fox cards differently than Fight Nights and other random cards. This is because I wanted to see how the new broadcast deal paid dividends for Fox on these cards. As you can see, UFC on Fox cards are chock-filled with top 10 fights (although many are in the lower weight classes); surpassing or besting their PPV counterparts.
You will also notice that Non-PPV cards have almost always been pretty bad, save for a brief uptick after the addition of lower weight classes. I will say though that earlier fight nights gave off a better illusion of quality. Often the fights featured TUF competitors, which at that point was still something UFC fans cared about. There were less cards, and less fighters on the roster, so even if the quality of the fighter wasn't so great (IE Chris Leben, Kendall Grove), the fans at least cared to see them fight. In contrast, while Fight Nights today feature 'better' fights, these fight cards might feature 12/13 fights, many featuring fighters the fans have never heard of. The UFC doubly shoots themselves in the foot by being averse to promoting the lighter weight divisions. Even on terrible fight nights you can have a top 10 flyweight fighting on Fight pass, or the first fight of the Prelims. Fans simply don't get to see these talented fighters.
While there has been a drastic decline in overall fight quality this year, you can see that the PPV's for the most part have been pretty good. Once again, some of these numbers are inflated by the non-traditional weight classes, so it's possible the main card of the PPV features 2/3 Top 10 fighters in the 'traditional' weight classes, with some great lighter/Women fighters relegated to the Prelims. The perception in weak PPV quality then can be attributed to bad marketing of some weight classes by the UFC, and bizarre orders in the fight card.
The metric I used was also misleading in the sense that it doesn't account for stars that still drew eyeballs but were not top 10 fighters. Fighters like Tito Ortiz, Rich Franklin, Matt Hughes, Randy Couture, etc. could still credibly headline a card even though they were no longer top 10 fighters. A card a few years ago then may not feature many top 10 fighters, but the fans would still tune in to see their old favourites.
Overall then, I think the fact that the number of top ten fighters fighting on UFC cards hasn't decreased over the years, but fans are becoming less and less interested in watching the fights, speaks to some factors that are beyond the UFC's control, but is also an indictment of how the UFC brands their product. As just mentioned, some of the factors beyond the UFC's control are the retirement of past champions who had made a name for themselves early in the UFC's tenure or in PRIDE. Injuries, such as those in the cursed 2011 can also damage fight card quality. The UFC can be faulted though for: 1) Flooding the roster with fighters fans have never heard of-increasing the duration of an event and the number of cards. 2) Bad bout order, relegating good top fighters in the lower weight divisions to prelims, and having 'slugging' heavyweights on the main card. 3) Destroying their own stars-EG Jon Jones. 4) Senseless matchmaking-EG Dillashaw-Barao 2-if Dillashaw wins, Barao is Franklin'd, if Barao wins then Dillashaw won't get another fight against him for a while. All the while Dillashaw is much more marketable than Barao. 5) The failure to create new stars-this debate has gone on for a while on this site-can the UFC sell stars? From my perspective, it's mostly fighters themselves who create the buzz-eg McGregor, but the UFC doesn't help. Unless you were a huge fan you'd probably never seen Chris Weidman fight anyone before he fought Anderson Silva. This problem is also endemic in the lower weight classes and women's division. If the fans never see the contenders before they get a title shot you can't blame them for not tuning in when these fighters become champions. All of these factors contribute to the perception of the fans that the cards are getting worse and worse.
I'll leave it at that because I've gone on way too long.
Here' a link to the Excel Spreadsheet I made (it's pretty disorganized!)