It’s been promoted as a “stacked, world-championship tripleheader extravaganza.” The World Series of Fighting (WSOF) heads to New York City on New Year’s Eve with four title fights in tow: Justin Gaethje vs. Luiz Firmino, Jon Fitch vs. Jake Shields, Marlon Moraes vs. Josenaldo Silva, and in the prelims David Branch vs. Louis Taylor.
To WSOF CEO Carlos Silva, “This milestone event for the World Series of Fighting will give fans in the Big Apple the long-awaited chance to witness our brand of professional mixed martial arts in action.” But how many will actually take WSOF up on the offer?
WSOF 34 will be held at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve starting at 1pm ET with a main card running from 4-6pm, smack dab in the middle of No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Washington in the college football playoffs. While some American fight fans want nothing to do with mainstream sports, probably the biggest mainstream competitive alternative would be a major football event.
Yet for the ticket-buying public, the decision is not only to watch WSOF 34, but to be willing to spend money to see it live and to travel towards the madness of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, a mere 10 blocks away from road closures, possibly only 4 blocks away by 6:30pm, around when people would be leaving if they don’t plan to spend the rest of the night in the area. The subway is still an option, and New Yorkers will know just how crowded it tends to get.
What we all know is that neither the UFC, Bellator, Invicta, ONE FC, Strikeforce, WEC, EliteXC, Affliction, Cage Rage, King of the Cage, nor WSOF has ever gone up against New Year’s Eve, until this Saturday. Pride put on New Year’s Eve shows from 2003-2006 as did Dream in 2011 and Rizin’s World Grand Prix last year, but let’s stay in the U.S. market and try to get a feel for how things might go down.
I requested the ticket sales reports for all seven 2016 WSOF events (WSOF 27-33) and received four useable responses (Missouri doesn’t make ticket sales reports public, Tennessee asked for an additional form to be mailed-in with a link I didn’t want to click on, and the Mashantucket Pequot Athletic Division never responded).
WSOF 28 went down in Garden Grove, CA on Feb. 20 with no other major U.S. MMA competition. It featured a Marlon Moraes title defense and had 516 tickets issued (422 sold and 94 comps). At prices ranging from $60 to $125, the event generated $27,000 in gross ticket receipts with 320 tickets sold at the lowest price point of $60 (76% of the total).
WSOF 29 took place in Greeley, CO on Mar. 12 with no other major MMA competition but with NCAA men’s basketball conference tournaments finishing up. It featured a title fight with the local star, Justin Gaethje, and had 1,065 tickets issued (1,015 sold and 50 comps). At prices ranging from $40 to $65, the event generated $43,000 in gross ticket receipts with 895 tickets sold at the lowest price point of $40 (88% of the total).
WSOF 30 was held in Las Vegas, NV on Apr. 02 with no other major MMA competition but with the NCAA Final Four ending a little before the main event start time of 11:30pm ET. It featured two title fights with David Branch and Jon Fitch and had 1,015 tickets issued (600 sold and 415 comps). At prices ranging from $15 to $144, the event generated $53,976 in gross ticket receipts. The distribution was a little more spread out as 257 tickets sold (43% of the total) came from the highest price point while 166 (28% of the total) were at the lowest price, and the rest in between. A noticeable difference here versus the previous two events is that comps made up 41% of the total tickets issued.
WSOF 32 went down in Everett, WA on Jul. 30 opposite UFC 201: Lawler vs. Woodley. It featured two title fights with Marlon Moraes and Lance Palmer and, while the ticket sales report isn’t the easiest document to follow, it appears that there were 2,672 tickets issued (1,867 sold and 805 comps). At prices ranging from what appear to be $46 to $116, the event appears to report $75,669.80 in gross ticket receipts (but by Bloody Elbow’s calculations, the ticket revenues were lower at $57,705.80). Ticket sales seem to be well-distributed across all price points, with the majority coming at a price of $66. This event also appears to have a high comp percentage at 30% of total tickets issued.
Based upon available records, WSOF had the following ticket history in 2016:
Gaethje, Moraes, and Branch on the same card is a WSOF fan’s dream and Fitch-Shields is a matchup that older-school fight fans like our own John Nash will absolutely love; Jordan vs. Kobe, err... Barkley vs. Malone, err... McGrady vs. Francis. But the card also has only one local fighter (if David Branch counts) and those guys are often the key ticket sellers for promotions not named UFC.
Silva told MMA Junkie in September, “…if you’re headed down to the city, or you live around it or you’re going to spend your New Year’s Eve night in New York City, 4-to-6 in the afternoon is a way to kick off that evening. You show up to the arena at around 1 p.m. and you’ve got a great afternoon on to an early evening of some great fights.”
It’s one thing to think it will work and quite another for customers to vote with their time, travel, and money and prove you right.
Then again, what would “right” be? What would constitute a successful event for WSOF? The financials are probably shaping up to be an absolute bloodbath with Justin Gaethje’s latest reported salary at $100,000 (50/50 back at WSOF 23, probably much more now), Jon Fitch’s at $70,000 (35/35), Jake Shields’ at $35,000 (and probably still has a win bonus), Marlon Moraes’ at $180,000 (90/90), and David Branch’s at $130,000 (65/65).
If all the champs win out and we cautiously use their old salaries, WSOF’s looking at $515,000 in fighter expenses from its top five fighters of the night. Throw in all the other event and television production expenses. Throw in New York City. Throw in New Year’s Eve. Think about just the hotel expenses alone. And don’t forget New York’s mandatory $1 million traumatic brain injury insurance policy, which at $1,675 per fighter on a 20-fighter card adds an additional $33,500 in expenses that wouldn’t be there in any other state.
While NBC Sports used to pay $0 for WSOF content, it’s believed they now pay a modest rights fee, leaving things like ticket sales, merchandising, and sponsorships as the other revenue drivers.
The goal with WSOF 34 can’t be profitability; it seems highly implausible. So is selling more than 800 tickets a win? Is beating 200,000 in viewership a win?
What would make WSOF’s investors smile on New Year’s Day? There don’t seem to be past indications of growth and the company’s pocketbook will probably be substantially lighter the next day, so is this a fighter showcase in an attempt to sell the promotion or woo more investors? In the wacky world of the WSOF, it seems like we could ask these questions all day long and not be sure what’s really going on.
As of Dec. 8, WSOF had sold less than 400 tickets to the New Year’s Eve show and already dropped prices by 50%, according to MMA journalist Mike Russell.
Rumors have been swirling as to the WSOF’s true motivation for canceling its last two scheduled events and deciding to hold a 4-title “extravaganza” on such a weird and unprecedented night. Silva believes that by putting the event on, people will come, and points out that New Year’s Eve falling on a Saturday could make it “a perfect sports day.”
If nothing else, WSOF deserves credit for running an interesting experiment. There’s a reason the list of major U.S. MMA New Year’s Eve events is essentially a blank piece of paper, but we’ll never truly know how one will do until someone has the guts to try it.
That being said, if I put the over-under at 800 tickets sold at prices of $50 or more, which are you taking?
Paul is Bloody Elbow’s analytics and business writer. Follow him @MMAanalytics.