There was a lot of talk last year that pay-per-view was a dying business with various reasons blamed, most notably the inability to stop rampant piracy.
Boxing shows with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao were doing big numbers, but the other two major pay-per-view promotions, UFC and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), were a mixed bag. UFC had roughly a 30 percent drop from its record setting 2010. For WWE, there was a decline going on several years, all the way through 2010. But 2011 was up slightly, and due almost entirely to two shows that involved the return of movie star Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson to the promotion after more than seven years apart.
But this past year overall has to be considered good for the genre, enough that almost all talk of pay-per-view being a relic from the past is gone. Mayweather Jr. and Pacquiao remained the kings, each topping 1 million buys for their top fights. But there still has to be major concern on the boxing side. It's clear that the concept of people buying pay-per-view isn't dying out, but boxing remains so heavily reliant on the big two. While there are potential replacements to their throne, none are proven.
The big question is who is going to fill the void over the long-term with both not getting any younger, and as chinks are being shown in Pacquiao's armor. A good sign was the success of the Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. vs. Sergio Martinez fight on Sept. 15, which pulled 475,000 buys, even though it was going head-to-head with Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez vs. Josesito Lopez on Showtime.
For UFC, the total number of buys was down largely because they ran 13 pay-per-view events in 2012 that generated approximately 5.7 million buys as compared to 16 the previous year that did approximately 6.4 million. The overall average rose from about 400,000 buys per show to an estimated 438,000.
What has changed in recent years for UFC is the numbers for lower level shows have dropped greatly. A few years back, it was thought that no matter what the lineup was, every UFC show was guaranteed 300,000 buys. This past year, a few shows fell under 200,000. But the big fights, and this past year there were three of them, continued to pull big numbers. Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen, Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans and Georges St-Pierre vs. Carlos Condit were all estimated at doing 700,000 or more buys.
UFC can't pull the kind of numbers Pacquiao and Mayweather do for their big fights, but they are more consistent. Of the seven shows that hit the 700,000 mark in North America last year based on cable industry estimates, three were boxing, three were UFC and one was WWE. But of the top 15, ten came from UFC, four from boxing, and one from WWE.
UFC President Dana White, who does not release numbers publicly, did say numbers were down last year, blaming it on injuries destroying so many main events. Injuries not just hurt the depth of nearly every show, but actually killed two planned shows. A March show never got off the ground due to an inability to produce a pay-per-view main event on that date. A Sept. 1 show was canceled late due to the Jon Jones fiasco, when Dan Henderson was injured and he refused to face Chael Sonnen as a replacement on the planned date.
But White was hopeful the bad luck would change and was optimistic for a turnaround this year.
The general rule for UFC is that all title matches in the heavyweight, light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight division do strong numbers, usually topping 450,000 buys. But the other weight divisions are usually doing in the 200,000 to 300,000 range. At face value, that immediately says that size matters, and it does. But part of it also is who the stars of the divisions are.
Silva, by virtue of being champion for more than six years and being considered by many as the greatest fighter in the history of the sport, has broken through as a top draw. But in his case, it was a long struggle, and he really didn't catch on big until fights with Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort.
Jones appears to be starting his run as a top draw with a string of title defenses and his being promoted as the top star of the future.
St-Pierre is the top pay-per-view draw in the sport, because unlike the other two, his shows always do well, regardless of the opponent. Part of that is his appeal in Canada, where he holds the pay-per-view records for any sport. But he's also a consistent producer in the U.S.
There is hope in UFC Cain Velasquez has been added to this group, since his fight with Junior Dos Santos delivered strong results in the Southwest and West Coast. The feeling is this is a sign Velasquez has connected with the Hispanic community, which for the most part has not taken to UFC at anywhere near the level it has taken to boxing and WWE.
The challenge is getting the other champions to draw. Part of the strategy has been to expose them to larger audiences on FOX with hope that builds them for future pay-per-views. Lightweight champion Benson Henderson's most impressive fight to date, his win over Nate Diaz on Dec. 8, was viewed by 5.7 million people. Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson's title defense this past Saturday on FOX was viewed by 5.2 million. Henderson's next fight is also earmarked for FOX, on April 20, against Gilbert Melendez.
The two fights in upcoming weeks are both significant tests. Jose Aldo Jr., the featherweight champion, has never drawn big on his own. But on Saturday he faces Frankie Edgar, the former lightweight champion, and is the closest thing to a dream match among the lighter-weight fighters. The show also has strong undercard depth with Alistair Overeem and Rashad Evans.
Ronda Rousey, who faces Liz Carmouche on Feb. 23 in Anaheim, Calif., is expected to get press in places that in the past rarely give UFC major coverage. But there are still questions. No woman's main event has ever drawn more than 125,000 buys in any form of combat sport or entertainment. And Carmouche as an opponent is a complete unknown. And while media coverage will create a strong level of awareness for the show, and could help a lot, nothing is guaranteed.
"Right now we haven't even started promoting that fight," said White. "In the lead up to this fight, you're going to see coverage of Ronda Rousey like this sport has never seen. She's going to be everywhere. The Los Angeles Times has been following her for about a month and she's going to be getting a front page story. HBO Real Sports just got done shooting her, Time Magazine, everyone. The list goes on-and-on. The list of media sources that are going to covering this, no fighter in the history of UFC will have the kind of coverage Ronda will have.
"Nobody ever, if you look at all the guys like Chuck Liddell, Tito [Ortiz], Matt Hughes, nobody in the history of this sport has brought attention to the sport like Ronda Rousey will leading up to that fight. The mainstream media she'll be pulling is ridiculous. Just the story in Forbes (where she was listed as one of the 30 brightest sports stars under the age of 30), she's being put in the company of Durant, LeBron James and Tom Brady. That's what these dorks on the Internet don't see."
World Wrestling Entertainment, the top pro wrestling producer in the world, is a public company which, unlike UFC, releases all its pay-per-view numbers. In 2012, the company sold 3,926,000 pay-per-views in 12 shows, of which, about 40% percent were outside North America.
In North America, the buys rose from 2,227,000 in 2011 to 2,336,000 in 2012, largely due to big numbers pulled by The Rock and former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, who returned to the organization in April after being gone eight years. WrestleMania, headlined by Rock vs. John Cena, did 1,219,000 buys worldwide, and did more pay-per-view buys outside North America than any event in history other than the biggest U.K. boxing events. Lesnar propped up numbers more in North America than outside the continent, clearly showing it was his UFC success that was the catalyst, headlined two shows. His first show, which took place April 29, did 159,000 buys in North America, a 47 percent increase over the prior year and the best for a second-tier WWE show in years. His second, SummerSlam, did 296,000 buys in North America, boosting numbers 64 percent from the 2011 version of the show.
The advantage WWE has over UFC, and even boxing, is the ability to successfully sell pay-per-views all over the world, even though they don't do the kind of numbers the other two do in North America, except for the annual WrestleMania show. The UFC is really limited to the United States, Canada and Australia. Boxing on pay-per-view can be huge in the United Kingdom, but that's generally limited to a British fighter like Ricky Hatton, now retired, or David Haye, under the right circumstances.
TOP FIVE SHOWS OF THE YEAR (Based on North American buys):
1. Boxing - May 5 - Floyd Mayweather vs. Miguel Cotto 1,500,000
2. Boxing - December 8 - Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez 1,150,000
3. UFC 148 - July 7 - Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen 925,000
4. WWE WrestleMania - April 1 - The Rock vs. John Cena 715,000
5. UFC 145 - April 21 - Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans 700,000
5. UFC 154 - November 17 - Georges St-Pierre vs. Carlos Condit 700,000
5. Boxing - June 9 - Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley 700,000