Declining UFC ratings since FS1 debut hint at larger story

This article originally appeared on on 9/6/13

If you're reading this, chances are you're not normal.

Sure you might be the picture of well-adjusted conformity to societal expectations on the outside -- a stable job, two kids, a nice car, a mortgage and all the typical trappings of the middle class American dream -- but somewhere deep down inside you're probably just a little bit off from everyone else.

After all, your average Joe Six Pack isn't a passionate MMA aficionado who actively seeks out news and opinion about the sport online. Heck, the majority of UFC fans -- the ones who make the difference between 900,000 buys for a blockbuster pay per view and the 250,000 buys or so the company can normally bank on from its hardcore audience -- devote such little time to following the inner workings of the sport it would shock those of us who analyze each video Nick Diaz uploads to YouTube like it was the Zapruder film.

The disproportionate number of waking hours us hardcores spend watching or thinking about the sport tends to warp our perception of reality. A steady diet of MMA news sites, message boards, and following fighter's Twitter feeds can be like staring into a fun house mirror at times: fighters who grab lots headlines and have a big online presence often begin to look like far bigger stars than they are to the world at large.

Occasionally though a story comes along that acts like a pinprick to the MMA bubble so many of us are comfortably cocooned in.

And then there's the story of this past Wednesday night's UFC Fight Night 28 rating. The Glover Teixeira vs. Ryan Bader headlined card attracted a mere 539,000 viewers -- by far the lowest number for a non-FUEL TV live UFC show since the company got on cable television back in 2005.

That's not a pinprick, it's a round of ammo fired from an AK-47 aimed directly at the MMA bubble.

After the rating came out Dana White wasted no time going into damage control mode. You see what everyone reporting on the record-low viewership failed to take into account was that the UFC was #1 on cable with males 18-49. Oh, and they beat a Red Sox/Tigers game on ESPN.

"This is all part of the building process," White wrote. "We've made a commitment to work with FOX to build this network."

That sounds like a great excuse on the surface, but how does White account for the UFC doing 1,782,000 viewers right outside the gate on August 17 for their first card on the debuting FS1? A 70% drop in viewership in less than three weeks can't be considered a good sign, "building process" or not.

Granted FS1 is operating at an inherent disadvantage to established stations like FX when it comes to drawing casual viewers, but the rating for 8/17 Fight Night 26 card proved a substantial portion of the UFC's fanbase is willing to put in the leg work necessary to find an unfamiliar channel in order to to watch fights they're interested in seeing.

So why did 1,243,000 or so UFC fans who watched Chael Sonnen take on Shogun Rua on 8/17, and obviously now know where FS1 is on their cable dials, decide not to tune in to watch Teixeira versus Bader this past Wednesday night?

The only reasonable explanation is they just weren't interested in the product the UFC was offering them.

Granted the UFC's audience is heavily skewed toward the West Coast, and because FS1 doesn't have a staggered feed like FX the main card began at 4:00 PM Pacific -- a time when most people in the UFC's target demographic are still at work. What's more, even though the numbers were disastrous per UFC standards, Fight Night 28 was still 237% above the approximately 160,000 viewers FS1 has averaged so far in prime time.

With that in mind, White's assertion that, "FOX couldn’t be happier with the UFC and the ratings we’re pulling" holds water. UFC are sure to score valuable brownie points with FOX for their role in helping to build FS1 during the early days of the network, which could help them secure a more lucrative deal with FOX when their current one is up in 2018.

However, a lot can still happen in the next five years.

Like for instance, what if the UFC isn't able to cultivate a new crop of money drawing fighters to replace its current handful of legit superstars? As Dave Meltzer pointed out in a story on the UFC's declining ratings this week's issue of the Wrestling Observer newsletter, Georges St-Pierre is 32 years old, never needs to work another day in his life, and has already gone through major surgery. It's possible he may still be reigning atop the welterweight division five years from now, but betting the house on it sounds like a good way to end up taking residence in a cardboard domicile to me. Anderson Silva will be 43 in 2017, and his arch-rival Chael Sonnen will be 41. Of the current surefire draws in the company, only Jon Jones seems guaranteed to still be on top of the sport when the UFC's current deal with FOX is up.

Which is why numbers like this past Wednesday's rating should be alarming to the UFC. 539,000 viewers may be fine and dandy for FS1's building process, but numbers like that don't do much for another building process that's essential for the health of the UFC's long term business: building new stars.

With the win over Bader, Teixeira earned himself the next light heavyweight title shot against the winner of this month's Jones/Alexander Gustafsson fight. Too bad hardly anybody actually saw him knock Bader out.

The same goes for Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza. Jacare looked like an absolute killer by mauling the super talented Yushin Okami en route to a first round TKO victory. It was the kind of attention grabbing performance stars are made of, but unfortunately the sound of Okami's body hitting the mat was akin to a redwood falling in an empty forest.

During the Spike years both men likely would have become far bigger names based off their television exposure. As Meltzer pointed out in his Wrestling Observer article, a comparison between Carlos Condit and Martin Kampmann's first bout and their 2013 rematch provides an excellent case study of the star power possessed by today's upper mid-tier UFC fighters.

In 2009 Condit vs. Kampmann did 1.9 million viewers in the main event of UFC Fight Night 18 on Spike TV. Last week on FS1 they did 824,000 viewers.

As the nearly 1.8 million for UFC's debut on FS1 shows, the UFC can't blame the change in networks or the FS1 "building process" for the 57% drop in Condit and Kampmann's drawing power from where it was at four years ago.

However, a picture of the probable culprit begins to emerge with a look at UFC's viewership pattern on their new cable home.

Since debuting on FS1 on 8/17 the UFC has run four shows on the network in under a three week period, including the two-hour UFC 164 prelims on August 31. That show did 809,000 viewers. With each subsequent card viewership has decreased.

There's a crash course in the effects of over-exposure right there for anyone who still believes it's impossible to have too much of a good thing when it comes to combat sports.

UFC fans were excited for the stacked Fight Night 26 card and went out of their way to watch it. Apparently over half of them got their UFC fix for the next month or so from that show. When Kampmann/Condit rolled around those satiated fans opted to spend their Wednesday night in ways that didn't involve watching people punch one another in the face. Most of the diehards who tuned in to the 8/28 show also stuck around for the free prelims on 8/31, but it appears that two-week MMA binge was too much for all but the hardest of the hardcores. Viewership fell 35% from the previous week for Fight Night 28.

Here's another set of stats that may put the effects of over exposure in sharper relief: in 2009 the UFC aired nine free cards on Spike, including three PPV prelim shows, for an average of 1.9 million viewers for the year.

So far in 2013, if you include PPV prelim cards, the UFC has put 21 cards on free television, with at least another 10 on the docket before the end of the year. If you subtract ratings for shows that aired on the low-penetration FUEL TV, the UFC's average in 2013 has been 1.6 million viewers.

A drop of approximately 300,000 viewers may not seem precipitous at first, but it's important to note the 1.6 million figure includes three UFC on FOX specials. The FOX shows netted an average of 3.3 million viewers this year, but the vast amount of households still without cable makes network TV an entirely different ballgame. With this in mind the FOX numbers are an apples to kiwis comparison with past numbers on Spike.

A more Granny Smith-friendly comparison would be to subtract those three FOX cards and look at the UFC's non-FUEL cable average for 2013. With four months left to go the company is at approximately 1.3 million viewers per show on average for cards that aired on FX or FS1. That's a 32% drop from where they were four years ago on cable.

The UFC has long contended that running frequent shows is key to their global expansion, and there may be some truth to that argument. However the effects of overexposure and a roster spread thin by too many live events can also be seen in the attendance figures for Fight Night 28.

Last summer UFC 147, headlined by Wanderlei Silva vs. Rich Franklin, drew 16,643 fans to Belo Horizonte's Mineirinho Arena. One year later and Teixeira and Bader attracted a scanty 5,126 at the same venue. The lesson? The UFC is often hot in a fresh market, but once fans realize how easy it is to get their UFC fix they begin to take the product for granted. That's when they start picking and choosing what shows they watch rather than religiously following every one.

Concomitantly, when fans feel overwhelmed by the amount of product out there and begin skipping shows, they miss what should be star-making moments like Jacare's destruction of Okami. This may not seem like a big deal as an isolated case, but in the aggregate it creates a watering down of the UFC roster's star power, which makes it hard for today's up and coming fighters to stand out from the pack the way the BJ Penn's and Forrest Griffin's of yesteryear once did.

Sooner or later the UFC is going to have to figure out a way to address this problem, because the day is going to come when they can no longer rely on the current crop of drawing cards. In a business where superstars are the stock in trade, nothing is more important than cultivating a roster of top fighters who can convince fans to alter their viewing habits and open their wallets.

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