When UFC opened 2014 with Georges St-Pierre on a sabbatical and Anderson Silva's career thought to be in jeopardy from a graphic broken leg, it was expected that it would be a tough year for the pay-per-view business.
The first two shows, UFC 169 and UFC 170, don't really indicate much except a continuation of the pattern that has been the case in recent years for every pay-per-view promotion, a huge show does as good or better than ever. And anything less than a big show, fans are very willing to pass on and wait for a big one. But the idea that people are checking out on pay-per-view completely was contradicted in a big way by the success in September of Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Canelo Alvarez, and in December of UFC 168, with a double main event of Silva vs. Chris Weidman and Ronda Rousey vs. Miesha Tate.
Both shows this year performed well above what appears to be UFC's bottom base in the 150,000 buy range.
UFC 169, which took place on Feb. 1, is currently estimated at doing 230,000 buys based on various sources. The show, held in Newark, N.J., on the eve of the Super Bowl, featured two lighter weight title matches held by two of the best fighters in the sport, Renan Barao and Jose Aldo. But neither has broken through as any kind of a significant draw.
Barao retained his bantamweight title against late replacement Urijah Faber, subbing for injured former champion Dominick Cruz. Faber is likely the strongest opponent from a drawing standpoint in the bantamweight division. It's unlikely Barao could match those numbers on his own with anyone except possibly Cruz. Aldo retained his featherweight title beating Ricardo Lamas.
The number was almost identical to what a Barao vs. Faber headlined show, UFC 149, did, and above Aldo's previous title defense against Chan Sung Jung at UFC 163. Aldo did significantly better with Frankie Edgar, a more established star, but that show also had strong undercard support. Aldo would likely do significantly better with lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, but talk of that superfight is out the window until 2015 at the earliest.
UFC 170, headlined by Ronda Rousey vs. Sara McMann, is estimated at doing 340,000 buys. That's down from Rousey's first main event, one year earlier, with Liz Carmouche. But the drop is hardly unexpected. The promotion of the Carmouche fight, the first women's fight ever in the UFC, was among the best in company history. There was both among the most media coverage leading to a UFC fight in history, combined with a stirring Prime Time shows focusing on the two women leading to the fight.
This show had a lot going against it in comparison. It didn't get anywhere near the media attention. Women's fights are no longer a novelty, and the first-time attention wasn't there. Rousey had just fought two months earlier, against Tate, in a match built up off the Ultimate Fighter as the biggest grudge match of the year. Rousey vs. McMann came nowhere close in garnering interest.
The McMann fight did have a hook, the first time two Olympic medal winners had ever faced off in a UFC fight. And it took place the week of the Olympics. But that didn't get anywhere near the kind of media attention the fight a year earlier got. A lot had to do with Carmouche, who promoted the fight much harder than McMann. In the arena for both fights, Carmouche was clearly a far bigger "B side" star in the fight, regardless of McMann's wrestling credentials and undefeated status coming in. In addition, there was no Prime Time vehicle the last three weeks for UFC 170, which led to the late surge in ticket buys for the first show, and momentum that wasn't there this time.
Prior to that show, no pay-per-view event in any form of combat sports or entertainment, headlined by women, had ever topped 125,000 buys.
Still, it was as successful as any UFC pay-per-view that didn't have either St-Pierre or Silva headlining, since the Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen fight. And McMann is not even in the same universe as Sonnen when it comes to talking people into buying fights.
It appears, at least for now, that there are a few categories of UFC on pay-per-view.
There is the somewhat rare sub-200,000 buy show, which are fights that, for whatever reason, a lot of the regular buyers are willing to skip. The 200,000 to 275,000 range are usually title fights with champions who have yet to establish themselves as major draws, fights significant to fans of the sport but the general public doesn't really care about. The 275,000 to 375,000 range looks to be the major champions, Jones, Rousey and Cain Velasquez, when put in with opponents without major name value, although Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos was in that range. .
Chris Weidman may fall into that category, but since he's never headlined without Anderson Silva, the jury is still out. The success of his May 24 fight with Lyoto Machida, who is not a big draw today, but has been a part of successful shows in the past, will tell the tale. Fights later this year will also establish which category new champions Johny Hendricks and Anthony Pettis fit into.
When the public feels there is a big fight or a can't miss show, like UFC 168, the sky is still the limit. But even Alvarez, coming off the biggest grossing pay-per-view event of all-time, only hit 350,000 buys on March 8 when matched up with someone who was not considered a pay-per-view level star.
The changes from a few years back, where any UFC event was seemingly guaranteed to hit 300,000 buys, is a natural evolution coming from the proliferation of free content on television.
Ultimately, the economic future is going to be driven by television rights worldwide, and new technological advances. It will be less reliant on pay-per-view, the revenue stream that allowed UFC to have its huge growth from 2005 to 2010.
However, we are nowhere close to the day when a television network will outlay $30 million or a super event in MMA, or $75 million for a gigantic boxing show. Until that day comes, the pay-per-view model is going to remain in place for the biggest shows. And all the evidence still points to more people than ever willing to pay larger amounts of money than ever when it's a show that they really want to see.