It is impossible to argue that the NHL, MLB, NFL and NBA have massive fan-bases. Many of those fans are repeat customers and loyal fans. The UFC, on the other hand, is still a growing entity just blossoming into his pubescent years. It is in a constant struggle to grow its fan-base and remain on or close to the forefront of the sports landscape. This struggle essentially comes down to attempting to win over both the "diehard" fans as well as the casual fans.
Allow me to use the term diehard here loosely, for the lack of a better word. The diehard fans certainly tune in to most or all fights on free television and likely purchase at least a few PPVs per year. They know every fighter on every fight card along with who is good in what discipline. They frequent the MMA sites such as MMAJunkie, MMAFighting, follow Ariel Helwani on Twitter, and preach MMA to anyone who will listen. Some even train themselves. The thing about diehard fans is that the UFC already has them. They have already penetrated that market. In essence, the number of diehard fans in the market is fixed. It is also much smaller than the diehard fan-bases of the other major sports.
The casual fans play the role of the variable in this growth equation. The casual fans are those who will turn into a few fights a year that peak their interest. They know when something big is happening in the world of MMA but other than that they don't follow the sport much. However, the casual fans are the ones that make the biggest difference for the UFC. They are the difference between a solid 500,000 PPV buy and an outstanding 900,000 PPV buy night. Obviously, the UFC depends on the diehard fans because one diehard fan will bring in more revenue per year than one casual fan will bring in per year. The goal is to constantly penetrate this casual fan base market in hopes of turning them into diehards.
This longwinded business lesson will help us understand a few things about some of the recent, potentially questionable, decision making of the UFC. Sonnen v. Jones clearly makes very little sense to the diehard fan but to the casual fan it's a fun fight with two fighters they know well. GSP and Nick Diaz, while not nearly as silly, are two fighters casual fans know and a fight the UFC can very easily market. The decision to wait for a marketable fight for Anderson Silva also seems clearer now. The company needs to capitalize on the opportunities to attract the maximum number of casual fans because it only has so many real chances to do so. They know that the diehard fans will show up because regardless of how questionable the decisions may be, they are still big fights.
The hope is that the UFC does not begin to alienate the diehard fan-base with these decisions. By continuing to put together matchups for the casual fan, they run the risk of losing some legitimacy as a sport. The NFL doesn't put the Patriots and Jets in the Super Bowl every year because they know it will get strong ratings. The teams earn the right the play in that game, just as fighters should earn the right to fight in the big fights. It makes sense what the UFC is doing and hopefully, these decisions will end up helping to grow the sport in the long term.