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Roundtable: How much does the quality of a UFC card matter to fans?

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UFC Fight Night: Blaydes v Daukaus
Curtis Blaydes battles Chris Daukaus in the main event of UFC Columbus on March 26
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

This past weekend, two of the best light heavyweights in the world squared off with $1,000,000 on the line. The winner would have a strong case to be the best in the world at 205 pounds.

And no, the fight didn’t happen inside the UFC octagon.

Vadim Nemkov defended his Bellator title against Corey Anderson in the finals of light heavyweight world grand prix at Bellator 277, and while the event certainly generated more interest than your average Bellator card — helped by a controversial non-finish and the A.J. McKee vs. Patricio Freire rematch in the headliner — it still seems that in the eyes of the broader audience, it played second fiddle to Saturday’s middling UFC Fight Night card.

In terms of star power, UFC Vegas 51 was just a shade above a Contender Series lineup outside of the main event. Two debutants from the ESPN+ prospects show were featured in the co-main event and several other fighters on the card were either debuting or only recently cast from the Contender Series.

This upcoming weekend, Bellator hosts two events in Hawaii featuring names like Cris Cyborg, Juliana Velasquez, Kyoji Horiguchi, plus the return of Ilima-Lei Macfarlane. UFC Vegas 52, meanwhile, has a strong headliner in Amanda Lemos vs. Jessica Andrade, but is otherwise light on contender implications. This isn’t the first Fight Night event that has had fans questioning the overall quality of the product, either.

The question is how much does that matter given the power of the UFC brand and its working relationship with ESPN that requires it to churn out hours of valuable programming? Quantity over quality is the name of the game, but how much longer will fans put up with it?

The MMA Fighting crew of Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, Steven Marrocco, and Jed Meshew discuss whether the UFC risks alienating fans with watered down events and how long its audience is going to put up with it.

Join the conversation below as we’d love to hear your thoughts.


Lee: I have a confession to make: When it comes to the UFC schedule, I’ve always been in favor of the more cards the merrier.

As someone who jumped in with both feet onto the MMA bandwagon during the 2000s glory days of Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, and Brock Lesnar and then stayed hitched on as it barreled into the Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor eras, I can appreciate that there was a time when scarcity of product helped to keep fans salivating from card to card.

But I also read the tea leaves and could see that the UFC’s plan for world domination wasn’t just lip service. With demand rising steadily, it was easy to predict that UFC events could go from special occasions that you’d plan gatherings around to throw-away Saturday afternoon affairs that you’d catch while flipping channels. And once networks like FOX and ESPN entered the picture, the UFC realized it could have its cake and eat it too with pay-per-view revenue on top of lucrative TV deals.

Guess what? It’s fine.

That might sound like a defeatist attitude as more and more non-descript UFC cards make their way onto our screens, but I look at it as more of accepting the product for what it is while remaining hopeful of what it could be. Fight Night events aren’t meant to be killer from top to bottom, there’s going to be lots of filler in there and the average fan has the luxury of ignoring it if they choose to do so. Dana White has been saying for years that if you don’t like what his promotion is selling then don’t watch it (this seems like the opposite of promotion to me, but that’s a whole other discussion) and that statement has never had more utility.

See a few intriguing names on the prelims? By all means, tune in early. Stacked ESPN main card? Check your local listings and set your calendar. An event that even the most hardcore fan would acknowledge is a one-fight show? Relish that one fight and enjoy the rest of your weekend. Traditionalists may scoff at the influx of Contender Series signings and regional prospects that have flooded the UFC APEX, but the truth is that the viewer has as much power as ever and choosing to skip one or two cards isn’t going to diminish their fealty to the UFC.

Think about how many fans echo the sentiment of “It’s always the cards no one is talking about that deliver,” a theory that’s patently untrue and only survives because 1) people keep saying it and 2) people flat-out don’t remember the cards that don’t deliver, so there’s an unassailable confirmation bias at work. Add in how easy it is to digest highlights in bite-size viral portions and you can see why there hasn’t exactly been a mass exodus of UFC loyalists.

I get that the optics can look bad at a glance, with fans and media alike decrying low stakes main events and who’s who (no, seriously, who???) lineups that are increasingly becoming the rule and not the exception, but as long as there are plates on the table there will be fight hungry maniacs willing to scrape them clean. Or at least take the occasional nibble. And from what we’ve seen, it will take a lot to drive folks away from the restaurant for good.

Marrocco: The fan inside me who stayed up late on weekdays to watch early 2000s Shooto DVDs is long dead, so I’m not the best judge of the tolerance for thin fight cards. I do this for a living, and these days, the never-ending carousel of UFC fighters and UFC events is numbing, to say nothing of all the promotional competitors crammed into other nights of the week.

Actually, come to think of it, maybe I’m the perfect judge of whether anemic cards matter. Back in the mid-aughts, it mattered very little to me who was in the main event of a live card or one that took place four years ago in Japan. I feel fairly confident Mamoru Yamaguchi was not driving subscriptions for the MMA Vault service I belonged to long before Fight Pass was a thing, but I was totally there for it. I had been bitten by the bug, I was in love with the sport, and I wanted to see everything. I was obsessed.

Whether Yamaguchi or Conor McGregor is the gateway drug, MMA is extremely addicting for a certain segment of the population. These folks don’t necessarily need context with violence; they watch the sport for its technical aspects as much as its drama and gore. They are the hardcores that have populated internet message boards and bickered on Twitter since forever, and it’s their passion that’s kept the UFC alive and provided a springboard for its entry into the mainstream.

The UFC, in turn, trades on that. It expects that, more or less, around 800,000 viewers will tune in week in and week out to whatever they put on. They can deliver to ESPN a consistent audience, and on a platform like ESPN+, in a highly fractured and competitive market for live sports content, that’s a valuable commodity. The network can sell ads and repackage the content down the line, then reap the rewards (or at least a portion of them) from the pay-per-views.

But here’s the thing about passion: eventually, it fades. Most of the hardcores that I started watching fights with (and more than a few journalists) have long since tuned out of the week-to-week machinations of the UFC, jumping back in only for the fights that move the needle. Some have completely given up. Time after time, the explanation I hear is, “I just can’t keep track of all the fighters.” It reminds me of another “sport” I used to obsess over in the mid-aughts: poker.

Back in the day, ESPN did a masterful job of highlighting the stars of the game: Doyle Brunson, Annie Duke, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson. Although they were all vets, they felt a little bit like the original cast of The Ultimate Fighter. They brought unique personalities to a high-stakes game, and you bonded with them. Cut to two or three years later, however, and the market was saturated with poker events. Online players had invaded, and there were so many new faces, so much content, it was hard to develop the same bond. Without that, I tuned out, hopping in only momentarily for a result here or there.

The point is, there’s a lifecycle to fandom, whether you’re a hardcore or a casual. In business, sustainability is measured by churn, or how long customers stick around before they bounce. Lately, it feels like the UFC is really testing the bounds of its most loyal customers’ attention spans (to say nothing of their bank accounts), and it’s been lazy about creating a bond between them and the athletes (no thanks to a relentless schedule and churn of its roster). But unless we see fewer events, a redistribution of talent for lower-level shows, or a clear disengagement from ESPN on the business side, you can expect the new status quo to remain. At that point, the UFC has squeezed its margins as tight as humanly possible, and a few hundred thousand viewers here and there won’t matter in the long run.

Martin: ​​These days, it really seems like quantity has taken over quality when it comes to the UFC Fight Night cards on ESPN and ESPN+, and eventually fans are going to learn to just tune it out.

With quotas to fill under a lucrative contract with the Disney-owned sports network, the UFC has been promoting more and more cards lately with less and less attractive names at the top of the show while largely saving the bigger fights for pay-per-view. Now, that’s not exactly a new phenomenon — the UFC’s money making bread and butter has always been pay-per-view, but that doesn’t negate the $1.5 billion deal the promotion made with ESPN that included all of these smaller events that make up the other three weeks out of any given month.

Now to be fair, the UFC hasn’t really been forced to make any dramatic changes because the audience has largely still continued to show up for whatever card happens to be on television, even if the event is lackluster at best. The problem is that inconsistency has to be a concern with ratings oftentimes rising or falling based only on the lead-in the UFC receives on ESPN, or the competition the fights are facing on other networks.

A prime example is UFC Vegas 51 this past weekend, which averaged 914,000 viewers, an astonishing number considering the card was littered with little-known names including a co-main event between two fighters who had never even competed in the promotion before. The deceiving part about those viewership figures is that the UFC enjoyed a robust audience sticking around from the NBA Playoff games that preceded the fights. On the flipside, the UFC Columbus card, with a much stronger main card, dipped down to 677,000 average viewers while going up against the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Names sell fights, and lately, the UFC hasn’t really seemed to care all that much about putting a lot of name value into the Fight Night cards. This ongoing philosophy also hurts the prospect of building future champions and contenders, because if nobody cares enough about the people in the main event, who’s going to bother paying attention to the lesser-known fighters on the undercard?

Let’s just look at the next couple of cards set to air on either ESPN or ESPN+ to understand how far the product has fallen. UFC Vegas 52 boasts an ex-champion at the top of the card in Jessica Andrade, but her opponent, Amanda Lemos, has only ever competed on one main card in her entire career with the UFC. Perhaps the UFC is banking on Andrade’s celebrity to sell this card?

Out of the other 12 fights on the card, there is only one fighter in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings competing on Saturday night, and that’s No. 11 Manel Kape. Otherwise, the most prominent name at UFC Vegas 52 is likely Clay Guida, who fights Claudio Puelles.

The following week, at UFC Vegas 53, No. 6-ranked Rob Font takes on No. 11-ranked Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera in the main event. The UFC’s website currently only touts four bouts confirmed for the entire card. Four fights. Total.

Now, obviously there are plenty of other fights happening, but that’s how little it seems to matter that those matchups are announced just over a week away from the event. Out of the fighters who were previously confirmed to compete next Saturday night, No. 15 strawweight Jessica Penne appears to be the only other ranked athlete on the entire card.

Rankings might not matter to everybody, but that’s at least a good gauge in terms of recognizable names from a storytelling narrative that can help sell an event. These upcoming UFC Fight Night cards look atrocious in that particular regard.

At some point, people are going to start turning the channel even if there’s still going to be a percentage of the fanbase watching whatever is happening so long as the UFC’s name is attached to the event. Right now, the bare minimum is the only requirement for the UFC to promote a Fight Night card and that’s just not good enough in the long term.

The UFC has certainly put on bad events in the past but these days it appears that the promotion is all but daring the audience to tune out and find something else to watch on Saturday nights.

Meshew: You’re asking if UFC fans will get tired of being fed fight cards that are tantamount to a regional MMA show being branded like a UFC hot dog? This is the same core group that regularly trashes actual good fighters for asking the UFC for silly things like “to be compensated fairly” and is still holding onto the timeless aesthetic of Affliction in the year 2022. These people are nothing if not loyal. And honestly, I can respect that, especially because fans don’t really have a choice. Sure, maybe the fights suck that night, but what else am I gonna do, watch baseball? I’d rather roll around in mouse traps.

The reality is, for better or worse, the UFC is MMA for a vast, vast majority of people. It’s like the NFL. Sure, there are other professional football leagues out there, but no one knows about them and they mostly suck. And even if an Arena game is functionally the same as watching the Lions play the Jaguars in Week 9, you’ve got to be a full-blown degenerate to watch Arena Football. Same with the UFC. No one is going to watch Bellator on a Saturday night when it’s on Showtime (dead serious, I am the only person I know with a Showtime subscription, and I only have that because I work in MMA and thus have to), and it’s friggin’ Bellator.

Speaking of Bellator, let me make the case for why the UFC spoon-feeding us midwestern smokers dressed up as rising contenders is, on the balance, fine.

I am by every definition of the word, a hardcore MMA fan. But others, perhaps a majority of the people who regularly watch MMA, are simply people who like to watch fights. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And you know what the UFC does well? Produce fights. Damn near every Saturday night, on ESPN+ (a channel that, you know, every person in the target demographic actually owns), somebody is getting into a fistfight with somebody else, and I can be reasonably sure that the overall production values will be competent or better, and that my ears won’t be perpetually accosted by the tenors of “Big” John McCarthy and Josh Thomson. Maybe these fighters are not “important,” but for me, a person who doesn’t really care about the who or why, one fight is pretty much the same as any other. It’s a way to pass the time on Saturday night while I cook dinner. And again, it’s better than baseball.

At the end of the day, it is what it is. ESPN needs X amount of cards a year to fill up their time slots, the UFC wants that sweet guaranteed money so they’re going to oblige, and viewers want something to do on Saturday night, so they are going to watch, which in turn will make ESPN want more content. It’s a vicious cycle of mediocrity but you know, there are worse things in the world than having fights exceedingly available every weekend. Not that long ago, I was having to bootleg MMA videos off The Underground, if video existed at all. So, in the words of Marlo Stanfield, this is one of them good problems.

Poll

On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate your UFC fandom these days?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    10
    (52 votes)
  • 40%
    7-9
    (185 votes)
  • 32%
    4-6
    (149 votes)
  • 15%
    3 or lower
    (70 votes)
456 votes total Vote Now