Time UFC changed its PPV approach
Promotion should go to four massive events a year instead of a so-so one each month
Coming off a banner year in 2016 where Conor McGregor headlined a trio of shows that garnered more than 1.3 million buys and two additional events (UFC 200 and UFC 207) each surpassed the one-million-buys milestone, returns on the UFC’s monthly numbered offers have fallen off dramatically.
With McGregor taking a break to box, Ronda Rousey once again having departed and Brock Lesnar back in the WWE (and suspended), this year’s nine pay-per-view events have generated an estimated 2.5 million buys combined, good for an average of 277,000 buys per show. By comparison, McGregor’s three headlining appearances in 2016 generated roughly 4.2 million buys alone, with the 13-event slate averaging just over 650,000 buys.
What makes those stark differences in numbers even more intriguing is UFC 214, the late July event headlined by a light-heavyweight championship rematch between Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones, accounts for 850,000 buys on its own, 34 per cent of the year-to-date total.
Although there have been a number of compelling championship fights stationed atop the other eight pay-per-view events this year, that event is the sole fight card headlined by an established star. When viewed in combination with last year’s numbers, it highlights just how important having a bankable figure competing in the main event of each payper-view is to the final sales totals, which makes next month’s return to Madison Square Garden an interesting test case.
Headlined by returning former welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre challenging Michael Bisping for the middleweight title, UFC 217 is the most star-studded event of the year, with two additional championship bouts and a handful of established names and intriguing matchups littered throughout the undercard. Given recent trends, it should produce one of the best buy rates of 2017 and if that holds true, it might give the UFC reason to reconsider how it handles pay-per-view events in 2018 and beyond.
If fans only seem to be tuning in when the biggest names are stepping into the Octagon, is it possible the UFC opts to drastically decrease the number of pay-per-view events it holds each year while simultaneously loading up those select shows in hopes of securing the highest possible returns?
It’s something I’ve wondered about for a number of years and a concept that feels like its time might be coming. Not only are payper-view numbers way down from 2016 — and down on the whole since the halcyon days of 2008-11, where 300,000 buys was the low-water mark — but the UFC’s TV contract with FOX is set to expire and if the company was ever going to go in a different direction in terms of its schedule and approach, now would be the time.
I’ve always liked the idea of embracing a “Big Four” approach to pay-per-views — one major event each quarter, each of them loaded with as much talent as possible. The big weekends the UFC has annually targeted align nicely with the idea — Super Bowl in February, U.S. Memorial Day in May, International Fight Week in July, New Year’s in December — and give fight fans something to genuinely look forward to every couple of months.
Rather than trying to convince an audience that can watch MMA almost every weekend to open their wallets for quality events headlined by lesser-known champs and emerging talents, this approach could create an opportunity to put some of those unsung titleholders on TV, exposing them to a larger audience in hopes of developing them into bigger names who can eventually fill key positions on the quarterly, can’t-miss, pay-per-view events.
In the second quarter of this year alone, there were four championship fights spread across three payper-views. Combining those three fight cards would create a crackerjack event and send outstanding main-card fights from each of those PPV shows out to the ancillary events on TV, meaning more people would see Cynthia Calvillo beating Pearl Gonzalez or Frankie Edgar running through Yair Rodriguez or maybe even Max Holloway claiming the featherweight title with a virtuoso performance against Jose Aldo.
Would that amalgam of UFC 210, 211 and 212 generate more than the estimated 800,000 buys those three shows generated on their own?
With the right lineup, proper promotion and several weeks of anticipation since the last pay-per-view blockbuster, I don’t think there is any doubt. Could it happen? Time will tell.
All buy-rate totals are estimates, provided by Tapology, as UFC doesn’t disclose official totals.
Without Conor McGregor fighting to draw in viewers, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s pay-per-view event buy rates are way down this year.