There used to be a time when a UFC pay-per-view event, no matter who was in the headline spot, could be counted on for 300,000 buys.
Go back a little more than two years ago, no matter who was on top and what the sports competition was head-to-head, you were never going below 215,000 buys.
But with the increase in shows, people are picking and choosing what UFC content they'll watch, and what they are willing to spend money on. Without the right attraction, the numbers aren't going to be what they once were.
UFC 174, held June 14 in Vancouver, B.C., was expected to be the baseline test of the UFC brand appeal. The main event pitted flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson against an unknown contender, Ali Bagautinov. It was expected going in that it would be the lowest pay-per-view number for the UFC of the modern era. The only question was, how low would it go?
Estimates for the show are running in the 95,000 to 115,000 range, although Yahoo! Sports last week had a 125,000 estimate. UFC does not release its pay-per-view numbers. But by any estimate, it would set a baseline low for the company which only twice in the modern era had fallen below 150,000 buys, and those were for shows without a championship fight. It is believed the prior low for a championship fight was about 180,000 buys for the Jose Aldo vs. Chan Sung Jung featherweight title fight at UFC 163.
On Saturday night after UFC 175, Dana White talked about how UFC business is changing to being a worldwide promotion, and that people are going to not be watching every show and he's accepting of that. He said that the Johnson vs. Bagautinov fight did exactly what they projected and they were not unhappy with the number, saying that the featherweight division is new, praising Johnson as champion and saying he would have no qualms about headlining another pay-per-view show with him.
A key part of this story is whether the exposure of being a headliner on FOX, the widest viewership platform UFC has, translates into future drawing power. With Benson Henderson, his FOX exposure did lead to some increase in his drawing power when moved to pay-per-view with the Anthony Pettis fight, and even after losing the title, a surprising success on FS 1 for his recent bout after losing the title to Rustam Khabilov, which drew UFC's second largest rating so far this year on that station.
But over the last year, if anyone should have been able to increase his name value and championship worth based on exposure, it was Johnson.
Johnson headlined three of the four FOX events in 2013, doing 4.22 million viewers against John Dodson (although a major part of that show's success was Rampage Jackson fighting for the first time in years on a free television show), 2.38 million against John Moraga and 2.8 million against Joseph Benavidez. That's three main events, as well as three FOX preview specials with him as the featured player.
It was also three wins, all impressive in different ways, the most recent being a quick knockout against the consensus No. 2 man in the division. For the knocks on smaller guys not finishing, or on fight quality, he had a submission in a dominant performance, a fast knockout and a fight of the night decision in his FOX appearances. He was coming off the most impressive performance of his career. He was discussed in every conversation for Fighter of the Year. Nobody who saw any of his fights could question his skill level.
Nobody should have benefited more from FOX exposure in the past year. But to the general public, none of that meant a whole lot. At the end of the day, it was not a fight that the masses wanted to pay to see.
A lot of question has been regarding people not buying flyweights. This was Johnson's second pay-per-view title match, but the first, the finals of the tournament to crown the first champion, where he beat Benavidez, was underneath a Jon Jones title defense against Vitor Belfort, so was not put in a position to draw on its own.
With the exception of B.J. Penn, UFC has never had a fighter under 170 pounds who was a proven consistent pay-per-view draw. Urijah Faber likely would have been, at least to a degree, had his championship run come in the UFC instead of the WEC.
A lot of the issue was the unknown opponent. Bagautinov was the logical contender for Johnson based on recent wins, but his name value was zilch outside of the most Hardcore of fan, and that viewership isn't enough to give you significant numbers.
It also came three weeks after a show, and three weeks before the biggest show of the year. But it still represents a notable drop in the baseline audience that will view any pay-per-view the company puts out.
White, on Saturday, also brought up that UFC 175 looked to be tracking impressively. While no concrete numbers are available this early, scattered numbers have indicated it will do substantially above any show so far in 2014. The UFC so far this year has topped out in the 350,000 estimated range for Jon Jones vs. Glover Teixeira, with Ronda Rousey vs. Sara McMann right with it.
The Weidman and Rousey headline combination did UFC's last monster number, in the 1 million range, for UFC 168. UFC 175 was never going to come close to that figure, as Lyoto Machida as a challenger is not nearly the draw as Anderson Silva, nor did it have the back story of the strange first match ending. Alexis Davis did not have any rivalry with Rousey, unlike Miesha Tate.
But UFC 175, whether it does four or five times, or more of what UFC 174 did, only shows the audience is still there when the attraction is there, and very willing to skip when it's not.