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Ratings report: UFC 163, UFC 161 PPV numbers are just latest indicator of trend

The viewership of UFC's last pay-per-view, its most recent television shows, as well as the Fight Master reality show this past week gave a variety of lessons as to both UFC and Bellator's current audience.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

One of the biggest questions when it comes to the future of UFC is where exactly the industry is headed? Regular standalone pay-per-view events these days seem to be the province of UFC, World Wrestling Entertainment and pro boxing, but a lot of fans saw the news of the UFC’s deal with FOX two years ago as a changing of the landscape.

The landscape hasn’t completely changed yet, but things are already different. There are more free television shows and far more events than ever before. The number of pay-per-views diminished slightly, and some television specials that have had stronger lineups than some of the weaker pay-per-views. Still, the FOX deal, reported at being worth $100 million per year for a multitude of programming, still pays less than UFC earned even during the injury-plagued 2011 and 2012 pay-per-view years.

UFC will do significantly better than that this year, unless they get hit with a rash of injuries that change the September though December main event scene. The current FOX deal expires at the end of 2018, so this year’s economics dictate the biggest events remain on pay–per-view. It’s still the company’s biggest revenue stream, and the bonus from successful shows are where the top drawing champions make up the bulk of their income. In 2019, things will probably be very different. If UFC gains in popularity and sports rights fees continue to go through the roof, there will be different economics.

For today, what we’re seeing is when UFC puts on a show people want to see, they are going to buy it if it’s on pay-per-view, or find it on free television. The bulk of the UFC audience are people who are active fans of the product, who know there is a show and actively seek it out. It has its advantages, because for advertisers, it’s likely an audience paying close attention, rather than having the television on as background noise. But to be a real mainstream part of the sports fabric, you need to be able to reach out past that core. The two events so far this month bear this out.

On Aug. 3, UFC 163 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, headlined by Jose Aldo’s win over Chan Sung Jung, the Korean Zombie, is currently estimated at doing 170,000 to 190,000 buys based on several estimates from the cable and MMA industry. It looks to have beaten UFC 161, headlined by Rashad Evans vs. Dan Henderson, two significantly bigger names, but with no championship belt at stake, by about 35,000 buys.

It says that the featherweight title is worth something, and also gives an ominous message as to the current drawing power of Evans, who headlined a few of the biggest events in company history.

But fans are more and more willing to skip buying every show, especially when the pay-per-view doesn’t have a can’t-miss match. UFC 163 came a week after a major television show, and two weeks before another. The debut of UFC on Fox Sports 1 showed that the UFC fan base for the most part is not a casual viewer. Even though most would agree Saturday’s debut on FS 1 was a stronger lineup than the July 27th show on FOX, the idea that a show on FOX would do a 1.5 rating and a show on an unfamiliar station that didn’t even exist the day before would do a 1.4 is nothing short of staggering.

There were still more viewers watching the FOX show, headlined by flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson against unknown John Moraga, and a disappointing welterweight standoff between Rory MacDonald and Jake Ellenberger. FOX is in far more homes and is a mainstream network. Far more older and younger people and a casual audience are going to find a network show than one on a new station. But in the core UFC demographic, the one its advertisers are most interested in, Saturday’s show nearly three-hour show, from 8 p.m. to 10:45 p.m., headlined by Chael Sonnen vs. Shogun Rua scored big.

It beat the FOX show, in a similar time slot, by a 2.0 to 1.5 rating in Males 18-34. In Males18-49, it also beat it out solidly, 2.2 to 1.7. The show averaged 1.78 million viewers, the company’s second best cable number since leaving Spike. The Sonnen vs. Rua main event peaked the show at 2.27 million viewers. On its first day of existence, FS 1 not only beat ESPN’s airing of the Little League World Series head-to-head, something few expected, but was the highest rated national station, beating everything on cable and all the networks in prime time in Males 18-34, Males 18-49, and overall 18-34 and 18-49.

The strength in the core demographic, beating the FOX show’s numbers, shows the vast majority of those viewers are strongly into the product. You put almost any other sport on network prime time, and then three weeks later put a non-major event on an unknown channel and the difference would be huge. This was a fan base well aware of the show enough to go out and find it. It was not made up of a lot of people that looked around and went through a few of their favorite stations, and decided to sit down and watch a sports event.

It’s too early to tell what that means, because most UFC shows on FS 1 aren’t going to have the kind of lineup that makes that many people actively search out the show. Just as most shows on FX didn’t do the numbers Vitor Belfort vs. Michael Bisping pulled, the typical Wednesday night card, like they’ll have on Aug. 28 and Sept. 4, isn’t likely to do those kind of numbers. But whatever they do, it won’t be because the fan base can’t find the channel.

The prelims on Saturday from 6 to 8 p.m., featuring Conor McGregor and a battle of top ten bantamweights in Michael McDonald and Brad Pickett, did a 0.7 rating and 881,000 viewers. The number was virtually identical (0.7, 904,000 viewers) to what the prelims in a similar time slot did three weeks earlier before the FOX show on FX, an established top tier network that is available in more homes.

The other key number of this past week was on Thursday. Whatever question there was about the value of the pro wrestling audience to Bellator was answered emphatically. Fight Master, the company’s struggling reality show, had fallen to 398,000 viewers on Aug. 7 in its Wednesday at 10 p.m. time slot. Moved after TNA Impact, in what should have been a weaker time slot, and one changed just a few days in advance, and the number increased 49 percent, to 595,000 viewers.