There were several lessons to be learned about business in what ended up being the most successful year in the history of the UFC.
Among the key lessons is that as time goes on, pay-per-view has become a feast-or-famine business, and that it's almost all about marquee stars. Another is that to the public, it's all about star power, which has something, but not a lot, to do with skill.
The UFC's key revenue stream remains pay-per-view, and in 2016, the UFC led MMA to become the first sport to ever have five shows in a calendar year do more than 1 million buys. The two Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz fights were the biggest money shows in company history, with neither having a championship at stake and both involving legendary trash talk.
Indeed, one of the lowest moments of the year for MMA as a sport — the bottle-throwing incident at the press conference before the second McGregor vs. Diaz fight — led to the record-setting 1.6 million pay-per-view buys. It's another sad example that what you don't want to see happen may end up being the thing that leads to a show-breaking records.
McGregor vs. Diaz was the big story of the year. The irony is it was that the first fight was a makeshift bout put together when Rafael dos Anjos pulled out of his lightweight title defense with McGregor, and Diaz was chosen as the substitute. The original Diaz-McGregor press conference garnered a record level of attention, and the fight was far bigger than McGregor going for his second world championship against dos Anjos would have ever been. McGregor's loss set up an immediate rematch, and the score was evened in a five-round decision that was among the year's best fights.
In 2017, a trilogy fight would likely be, with the possible exception of McGregor vs. Georges St-Pierre, the biggest MMA fight the UFC could put together.
But two other shows, UFC 200 and UFC 205, taught another lesson. In both cases, the company loaded the shows like never before. Insiders were talking of UFC 200, before the fact, as the greatest overall card in history. It was hurt in the last days when Jon Jones had a drug test failure and had to be pulled from the event, but even so, getting Anderson Silva as a replacement on no notice appeared to be the ultimate in pulling a rabbit out of the hat. But that show, with a huge promotional budget, did 1,009,000 buys, only the fifth-best of the year.
UFC 205 was even deeper in talent and featured three championship fights, including McGregor's quest for a second world title against Eddie Alvarez, who had beaten dos Anjos. It was also the company's debut in Madison Square Garden and destroyed not only every MMA gate record, but even more impressive, the Madison Square Garden all-time record with a $17.7 million gate.
It was thought to be almost a lock to break the UFC pay-per-view record and questions were being asked whether such a deep show could break 2 million buys. But in the end, the show barely broke the 1 million mark. If UFC 200 didn't teach the lesson, UFC 205 did. It's really the main event, or maybe the top two fights, that sell the event. Putting on the deepest card ever only takes potential big matches away from other shows.
The Madison Square Garden event, as well as the loading up on other shows in November and December, left the cupboard bare as the UFC had to cancel its January pay-per-view with no quality matches available. The January FOX Sport 1 show, traditionally the biggest FS1 event of the year, ended up being headlined by B.J. Penn vs. Yair Rodriguez — a huge drop in quality and drawing power from Dominick Cruz vs. T.J. Dillashaw in 2016. The company had to create a women's featherweight championship for its February pay-per-view to have anything resembling a main event.
Overall, the UFC did approximately 8,370,000 buys on 13 shows in 2016, doing an all-time record average of 644,000 buys per show. The 2015 average, in a year that was at the time considered exceptional, was 550,000 per show. In 2014, a year where there were a ridiculous amount of injuries, averaged 265,000 on 12 shows.
But while those numbers sound like cause for celebration, and they were, there was a huge discrepancy in numbers.
Shows built around those three — McGregor, Rousey, and UFC 200 — did 1 million buys plus. But of the 13 shows, five also did less than 250,000 buys.
Then there were three shows in between.
UFC 197, which featured the return of Jon Jones in the aftermath of Jones' legal troubles, did 322,000 buys. It was a disappointing figure, as Jones had previously been a solid No. 3 draw. UFC 199, one of the year's best overall events, with a double headliner of Luke Rockhold vs. Michael Bisping — which produced the year's biggest upset as Bisping became the improbable middleweight champion — and Cruz vs. Urijah Faber for the bantamweight title, did 320,000 buys. UFC 203, headlined by Stipe Miocic defending the heavyweight title against Alistair Overeem, did an estimated 450,000 buys, although the real drawing card was likely the MMA debut of pro wrestling star C.M. Punk. Miocic's prior headliner, with Fabricio Werdum, did less than half that figure with a much deeper undercard but nobody like Punk on the show.
The rule of thumb is that if you have a big show, you will do more than ever before. But people are picking and choosing their pay-per-views more than ever, and anything but a "must-see" event will do worse than ever before.
Never have the individual stars, in this case McGregor, Rousey and possibly Brock Lesnar, meant more, and never have solid championship fights meant less.
But there will likely be a huge drop this year. It's very possible that neither Lesnar, who is suspended until the summer and turns 40 this year, nor Rousey ever fight again. Jones is also suspended until the summer. Punk may never fight in the UFC again, and even if he does, it's doubtful he'll be that big of a draw the second time. And McGregor, who is more important to company fortunes than ever before, has nothing scheduled.
Pay-per-view prelims were up six percent from the prior year, averaging 1,168,000 viewers, from 1,100,000 in 2015.
UFC events on FOX were up six percent this past year as well, to a 3,005,000 per show average, from 2,833,000. The usual four events, in January, April, July and December, averaged 2,831,000, so actually almost identical to 2015. The UFC added an August date, headlined by Demian Maia vs. Carlos Condit, which did 1,983,000 viewers — by far the lowest to date. And it also did a special Christmas Eve show, a replay of four fights from UFC 206, which did 4,720,000 viewers, the third-largest number for any UFC televised event in history.
FS1 live prime time events averaged 993,000 viewers, a number almost identical to the 990,000 in 2015.
Female fighters have also never meant more. Previously, Rousey had already been a pay-per-view monster and Miesha Tate showed legitimate drawing power for television. But in 2017, four women established themselves as television draws.
Strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk did a solid 1,086,000 viewers, strong summer numbers, for her FS1 title defense against Claudia Gadelha. Cris Cyborg drew 1,109,000 viewers for a quick, one-sided destruction of unknown Lina Landsberg, also on FS1.
Holly Holm, coming off the fame garnered in her win over Rousey, did 2,975,000 viewers on FOX — the best summer ratings for a UFC show in history — for her loss to Valentina Shevchenko. Paige VanZant followed it up by drawing 3,178,000 viewers on FOX for her main event with Michelle Waterson, which at the time was the largest UFC viewership in nearly three years.
Bellator in 2016 dropped nine percent in average from 746,000 to 676,000 viewers. Some of the dip was because Spike TV was in fewer homes, a combination of the drop in cable subscribers and Comcast moving Spike from the basic tier to a premium tier.
Bellator's numbers would have dropped more had it not been for its record-setting event in February, built around Kimbo Slice vs. Dada 5000 and Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock. But that night was a disaster from everything but a ratings standpoint. Dada nearly passed away in the hospital after the fight. Slice failed a drug test for the steroid Nandrolone and elevated levels of testosterone, then passed away a few months later. Shamrock also failed for steroids and Methadon.