Hardcore MMA fans, with their incessant need to manufacture controversy, have recently been complaining about the order of fights on UFC cards. Recent examples include Khabib Nurmagomedov v. Rafael Dos Anjos at UFC on FOX 11 and Nik Lentz v. Manny Gamburyan at this weekend's UFC Fight Night 40. In an effort to quell this "debate," I will discuss the two dominant considerations that go into UFC's bout placement.*
UFC has to deliver on each platform.
With the exception of the international Fight Pass cards, each UFC event is broadcast across two to three different platforms. The iterations include PPV/FS1/FP, FOX/FS1(2)/FP, FS1/FS2/FP, and FS2/FP. While there is some logic to the idea that the best fights should be on the best platforms, the fact is that for each event, UFC must deliver independently satisfactory ratings on every platform. UFC cannot "rob Peter to pay Paul," as the saying goes. In other words, UFC cannot put all the best fights on one platform at the expense of other platforms.
Of course, that is not to say that each platform should perform equally. It is understood that title fights are almost always going to be on PPV, for example. Further, a FOX Sports 1 undercard is not expected to deliver the same ratings as a main card on FOX. However, each platform has specific performance expectations, and the UFC has to place bouts on cards in a way to maximize the potential to meet or exceed expectations for each platform. A FOX main card that draws 5 million viewers would be a huge success for FOX, but if UFC ignored the undercard for that event and pulled in only 100,000 viewers for the FOX Sports 1 undercard, it has failed.
Take the Lentz v. Gamburyan fight. Lentz is ranked #9 in the featherweight division, and Gamburyan is a gamer and a veteran of the star-studded TUF 5. If UFC considered only merit in determining the placement of this bout, then it likely would have been on the main card; let's say for example UFC switched this fight with Tim Means v. Neil Magny. Here is the issue with this: the main card was not going to perform noticeably better or worse with this switch, but it is highly likely that the Fight Pass card would have performed substantially worse. UFC has invested a great deal into Fight Pass and needs to give fans a reason to watch undercards beyond the opportunity to watch C-level prospects if it wants to increase subscriptions. Having a solid, relevant fight at the top of the Fight Pass card is the way to do that, and I expect to see more of that in the future.
Marketing to casual fans matters.
Hardcore fans are going to watch most, if not all, of a given event, regardless of where a bout is placed on the card. However, casual fans are less familiar with the UFC's roster and need additional incentive to tune in.
The most controversial bout placement in recent memory was the Nurmagomedov v. Dos Anjos fight. Here we had the seventh- and fifth-ranked lightweights headlining the FS1 undercard, when on merit the fight could have been placed above Cerrone/Barboza on the main card. But "merit" is not something a casual fan is attuned to. A casual fan was almost certainly not familiar with either Nurmagomedov or Dos Anjos and is not going to pull up the records or past fights on the internet beforehand, and further the casual fan is not more likely to tune in to the main card to watch a fight between two unknown guys whose names they cannot pronounce. Also, consider that UFC on FOX 11 was being marketed as the "Most Exciting Card" ever shown on FOX, this on the heels of the under-performing UFC on FOX 10, which was headlined by Benson Henderson v. Josh Thompson, a fight widely regarded in the media as "another boring" Henderson fight." For all Nurmagomedov's peerless grappling skill, he does not have that violent kickboxing style that translates as "exciting" to the casual fan. **
Another perceived example of a poorly-placed bout I've seen floated was Daron Cruickshank v. Eric Koch being placed under the Costas Phillippou v. Lorenz Larken, also on this weekend's UFN 40. The concern here seems not only misplaced to me, but rather petulant, but it does serve to highlight some of the other considerations that are in play when the UFC decides on bout placement. In the former bout, the hardcore fan sees a flashy prospect (Cruickshank) versus a talented veteran looking to make a run at his proper weight class (Koch), both coming off knockout wins, in what was anticipated as a Fight of the Night contender. In the latter fight, the hardcore fan sees two fighters coming off losses, neither of whom are likely going to be title contenders. The casual fan, however, is not attuned to these factors. There are two reasons Phillippou v. Larkin was the co-main event here. First, Phillippou is the only ranked fighter of the four. A hardcore fan knows, of course, that middleweight is a thinner division than lightweight and that Koch was ranked at featherweight before moving up to lightweight, but a casual fan does not. The rankings are a way for the UFC to signal to the casual fan that this is a fight worth watching because he's one of the best. The second factor is fighter size and weight class. It is an unfortunate reality that casual fans think less in terms of pound-for-pound talent than they do in terms of who is the "baddest man on the planet." Casual fans, however, like big, muscular, bruising fighters; this is why Nikita Krylov gets placed on a PPV card and Demetrious Johnson delivers low ratings. Middleweights, particularly muscular guys like Phillippou and Larkin, look more impressive to the casual fan on a fifteen-second TV spot than either Cruickshank or Koch.
Conclusion: stop complaining.
If you are a hardcore fan, you are going to watch the fights you want to watch, regardless of where the fight is placed on the card. UFC has the unenviable task of balancing competing priorities: delivering consistently high PPV numbers (its primary source of income); pleasing FOX network executives (and, ultimately, the advertisers who buy time across each of FOX's three platforms); and developing its internet Fight Pass platform. While there will be the occasional head-scratcher, UFC is doing a good job of maximizing interest across platforms for each of its events.
* Due to (unconfirmed) rumors that the Eddie Wineland was buried on the FS2 prelims in retaliation for refusing to headline the Fight Pass card, I will not discuss that particular bout's placement in this Fanpost.
** When question about the placement of this bout, Dana White retorted that the bout headlined the undercard. I believe there is some merit in that. It was a huge fight for hardcore fans, who are the ones most likely to watch the prelims to a FOX event. Going back to my first point, Nurmagomedov v. Dos Anjos does more to drive ratings as a headliner for FS1 than it does as an early fight on the FOX card.