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Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey led UFC to record-setting pay-per-view year

The UFC had five pay-per-view events eclipse one million buys, four of which were headlined by Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey.

MMA: UFC 205-McGregor vs Alvarez Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The UFC’s 2016 was a fantastic one in terms of viewership. Through three Conor McGregor fights, Ronda Rousey’s end-of-year return, and Brock Lesnar’s one-off comeback, the UFC had an extraordinary five PPVs reach at least one million buys in a calendar year, which is a first for either MMA or boxing. MMA Fighting’s Dave Meltzer broke down the numbers.

“Overall, the UFC did approximately 8,370,000 buys on 13 shows in 2016, doing an all-time record average of 644,000 buys per show. The 2015 average, in a year that was at the time considered exceptional, was 550,000 per show. In 2014, a year where there were a ridiculous amount of injuries, averaged 265,000 on 12 shows.”

You don’t need to be a mathematician to figure out that McGregor and Rousey alone were responsible for over half of the UFC’s total pay-per-view sales. McGregor’s UFC 202 rematch with Nate Diaz did 1.6 million buys, making it the best-selling event in UFC history.

There is an interesting footnote on UFC 200, which went from a McGregor vs. Diaz 2 main event, to Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones 2, to Miesha Tate vs. Amanda Nunes. It was a show hyped as the biggest one in UFC history, but somewhat fizzled from an entertainment perspective. Meltzer writes that the show only barely reached the one million mark.

“Insiders were talking of UFC 200, before the fact, as the greatest overall card in history. It was hurt in the last days when Jon Jones had a drug test failure and had to be pulled from the event, but even so, getting Anderson Silva as a replacement on no notice appeared to be the ultimate in pulling a rabbit out of the hat. But that show, with a huge promotional budget, did 1,009,000 buys, only the fifth-best of the year.”

The odds of the UFC duplicating 2016’s success this year are extremely low. It’s possible that Rousey never fights again, McGregor is not expected to return until at least May, Lesnar is suspended until mid-July (and his UFC 200 fight vs. Mark Hunt was supposed to be a one-off deal), and Jon Jones is also suspended until July. I suppose the only wild card here is whether or not Georges St-Pierre finally strikes a deal with the UFC to make his return to the Octagon.

While there’s no denying who the top two PPV draws are in the UFC, what about everyone else? If you took out McGregor and Rousey, how did the “lesser” pay-per-views fare? Jon Jones’ fight with Ovince Saint Preux included, they were not particularly strong.

“Shows built around those three — McGregor, Rousey, and UFC 200 — did 1 million buys plus. But of the 13 shows, five also did less than 250,000 buys.

Then there were three shows in between.

UFC 197, which featured the return of Jon Jones in the aftermath of Jones' legal troubles, did 322,000 buys. It was a disappointing figure, as Jones had previously been a solid No. 3 draw. UFC 199, one of the year's best overall events, with a double headliner of Luke Rockhold vs. Michael Bisping — which produced the year's biggest upset as Bisping became the improbable middleweight champion — and Cruz vs. Urijah Faber for the bantamweight title, did 320,000 buys. UFC 203, headlined by Stipe Miocic defending the heavyweight title against Alistair Overeem, did an estimated 450,000 buys, although the real drawing card was likely the MMA debut of pro wrestling star C.M. Punk. Miocic's prior headliner, with Fabricio Werdum, did less than half that figure with a much deeper undercard but nobody like Punk on the show.”

On the television front, the UFC saw an increase in average ratings for their pay-per-view preliminary card specials on FS1, as well as a slight uptick in viewers for UFC Fight Night on FS1, and UFC on FOX cards.

“Pay-per-view prelims were up six percent from the prior year, averaging 1,168,000 viewers, from 1,100,000 in 2015.

UFC events on FOX were up six percent this past year as well, to a 3,005,000 per show average, from 2,833,000. The usual four events, in January, April, July and December, averaged 2,831,000, so actually almost identical to 2015. The UFC added an August date, headlined by Demian Maia vs. Carlos Condit, which did 1,983,000 viewers — by far the lowest to date. And it also did a special Christmas Eve show, a replay of four fights from UFC 206, which did 4,720,000 viewers, the third-largest number for any UFC televised event in history.

FS1 live prime time events averaged 993,000 viewers, a number almost identical to the 990,000 in 2015.”

With the UFC scrapping their January pay-per-view date due to the lack of a suitable main event, their first PPV of the new year is set for February 11th in Brooklyn, NY, where Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie will contest for the inaugural UFC women’s featherweight title. On March 4th, UFC 209 will feature a doubleheader of title bouts from Las Vegas, NV, as welterweight champion Tyron Woodley rematches Stephen Thompson in the main event, while Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson vie for the interim lightweight belt.

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