One of the recurring themes in the world of MMA this year has been the perceived lack of quality in many of the UFC’s pay-per-view events. On several occasions in 2014, the world’s premier MMA promotion has had to significantly alter (or, in one case, cancel altogether) its scheduled pay-per-view cards due to fighter injuries or other circumstances. These moves naturally left many fans wondering whether to even bother purchasing the events at all, and the resultant buy-rate estimates have illustrated the consequences.
Through UFC 177 on Aug. 30, the highest estimated buy rate for a UFC pay-per-view in 2014 belongs to UFC 175, which garnered 545,000 buys according to the MMAPayout Blue Book. This number looks all right on its face, but it would constitute just the fifth-highest buy rate when measured against pay-per-views from 2013, sixth highest compared to 2012 and seventh highest compared to 2010. (It’s possible that September’s loaded UFC 178 card eclipsed UFC 175’s medium-level buy-rate number to capture the year’s top spot, but official estimates have not been released.) On the other end of the spectrum lie UFC 174 and UFC 177, which garnered 115,000 and 125,000 buys, respectively. These paltry buy rates represent the least-purchased UFC pay-per-views since UFC 55 in 2005, which also got 125,000 buys, and they both happened within the last six months.
One might think, then, that the UFC might be reconsidering its current broadcast model. It wasn’t so long ago that pay-per-view was really the only place to see the UFC’s fighters compete. Sure, the UFC might put on a couple of cards on cable, but those were more or less used to advertise the upcoming pay-per-view. In recent years, though, the UFC has partnered with Fox Sports to greatly expand the number of free events it broadcasts. Throw in the advent of UFC Fight Pass in early 2014 and the number of yearly UFC cards continued to expand. With a seemingly increased focus on putting together appealing cards people don’t have to pay $55-per to watch, the monthly pay-per-views no longer seem necessary.
This is especially true when one considers the quality of some of the UFC’s pay-per-view cards this year. UFC 175 likely did so well because it contained two title fights, including one featuring ever-popular women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. The next highest performing pay-per-view event was UFC 172 (350,000 estimated buys), likely because it featured Jon Jones defending his light heavyweight title as well as a couple of great contenders’ battles on the main card. Even with that, though, 350,000 buys would have been considered on the low end of average in past years, as opposed to the second most purchased event. UFC 174 featured flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson defending his belt against Ali Bagautinov, a so-so welterweight contenders’ fight and… not much else. UFC 177 had its main event changed the day before the fight was to take place and was, without a doubt, the weakest pay-per-view offering of the UFC’s year, despite getting slightly more buys than UFC 174. And then there’s UFC 176, which was so unworthy of being on pay-per-view beyond its scheduled title fight that the withdrawal of Jose Aldo from his main event against Chad Mendes resulted in the card being canceled altogether. Zero buys. (Side note: I can all but guarantee UFC 177 would have also been canceled if it would not have meant the UFC admitting that two straight pay-per-view cards were absolutely unworthy of purchase.)
To summarize, then: In 2014, the UFC experienced pay-per-view buy rates that were significantly lower than average, put on two shows that received the lowest buy rates in nearly a decade due to their low on-paper quality and canceled an event in its entirety. Again, one might think the UFC’s executives would see this as a message and perhaps make some changes.
Earlier this week, the UFC held a media conference to announce its 2015 fight calendar. Included in the 45 total events on its schedule are 13 pay-per-view cards—the same number scheduled for 2014. Despite all the difficulties the company had maintaining even the semblance of pay-per-view quality for a number of its cards this year, the company is making zero changes to its schedule, and I can only think of a few reasons for the status quo maintenance.
Let’s start with the possible reason that gives the UFC the least amount of credit: The company has done monthly pay-per-views since 2006, dammit, and it’s not going to let a few low buy rates change the course of its plans. This theory posits that the UFC’s brass are too stubborn to admit that they’ve saturated the MMA marketplace with all of their free cards, thus impacting the company’s ability to pack its supposedly premium cards with high-quality fights. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, this line of thinking suggests the UFC would sooner suffer through a continued downward trend in buy rates than concede that it might be overvaluing some of its pay-per-view cards that feature just one or two premium contests. This is, no doubt, the most cynical explanation for the lack of changes to the UFC’s pay-per-view schedule in 2015.
Slightly less cynical would be the stance that the UFC is making so much money off of its non-pay-per-view broadcast partnerships that it is able to absorb the loss of pay-per-view revenue without concern. The UFC’s deal with Fox is reported to be worth $90 million each year. Do some quick math, and you’ll see that $90 million equates to about 1,636,364 pay-per-view buys, which is no small sum. In fact, that number is just a little bit lower than the cumulative estimated pay-per-view buys for all but one event between UFC 169 and UFC 177 (1,675,000 total buys, not including UFC 175). In short, the UFC can afford to put on pay-per-view cards that fewer people will pay to see because it has made up for the lost revenue (and perhaps exceeded it) through its partnership with Fox.
Despite the company’s ability to do this now, this is not a solid long-term strategy. Sooner or later, all but the most hardcore fans will simply stop buying pay-per-views altogether, unless the card offers a fight of such monumental importance as to warrant mainstream attention. In 2015, a majority of the UFC’s 45 planned events will air on network or cable television. For most fans, that’s more than enough content to satisfy their MMA appetites. Why pay $55 for a card with maybe two truly significant fights when they can watch a free Fox Sports 1 event that also includes some fights that matter? The days of Brock Lesnar and Anderson Silva drawing in a million-plus pay-per-view buys based on their presence alone are long gone. Jon Jones is the best fighter in the world, but, again, UFC 172, which he headlined against Glover Teixeira, only got an estimated 350,000 buys. Not terrible, but nowhere near the sorts of extraordinary numbers Lesnar, Silva and former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre used to draw. With all of the (admittedly great) free cards the UFC is offering, and without the sorts of megastars to capture the imagination of the sports-watching public at large, the UFC has removed a lot of fans’ motivation to buy its pay-per-views. Again, this year the company saw its two lowest buy rates since 2005, and that’s not insignificant. Unless the company gives more fans a reason to buy its $55 cards, fewer and fewer will do so.
Finally, there’s the optimistic stance that hopes the UFC has seen the significant dip in pay-per-view buys and, rather than reduce the number of pay-per-view cards to reduce the annual financial burden on its fans, the promotion is working instead to re-establish the luster of its $55 events by crafting cards that will still be worthy of fans’ purchase even in the event of a change to one or two of the fights. No more cards that have a title-fight headliner to supposedly justify the price tag, followed by three or four fights that only the participants’ family members would want to pay to watch.
So far, the 2015 pay-per-view calendar looks like it supports this point of view pretty well. The year begins with UFC 182, which again features Jones defending his light heavyweight belt. This time, though, he takes on recently established arch-nemesis Daniel Cormier in what is probably the most anticipated fight since Chris Weidman’s rematch with Anderson Silva. The headlining title contest is bolstered by a great fight between Donald Cerrone and Myles Jury, both of whom are members of the UFC’s lightweight top 10, along with bouts featuring sixth-ranked welterweight Hector Lombard, 15th-ranked lightweight Rustam Khabilov, and a middleweight contest between 15th-ranked Brad Tavares and long-ago title challenger Nate Marquardt. Check.
UFC 183 might not have a title fight on the card, but its headliner between Anderson Silva (the greatest MMA fighter of all time) and Nick Diaz (one of the UFC’s biggest draws) is not to be missed. This one also has a clash between top-10 welterweights Tyron Woodley and Kelvin Gastelum, another between former women’s bantamweight title contenders Miesha Tate and Sara McMann and an announced middleweight contest between Tim Boetsch and Thales Leites. Count me in.
UFC 184 certainly doesn’t back off from the great scheduled fights. Where UFC 183 doesn’t contain any championship bouts, UFC 184 features two. In the headlining spot, middleweight champion Chris Weidman faces top-ranked challenger Vitor Belfort, while women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey attempts to defend her belt for the fifth time when she faces No. 1 contender Cat Zingano in the night’s co-main event. There haven’t been too many other fights announced for this one, but it looks like Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza will face Yoel Romero and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva takes on Frank Mir. Any card with two title fights is worth a purchase, but Jacare vs. Romero is a gem as well.
Throw in the two-title-fight-having card that is UFC 181 and the company seems to be making an effort to improve its pay-per-view product. Could any of these cards lose their headliner and still be pay-per-view-worthy? Probably UFCs 181 and 184, given their two title fights, so that’s good. The other two would definitely lose some of their luster, but one can’t say the UFC hasn’t preemptively tried to make the rest of the cards as attractive as practical.
There’s almost certainly going to be a UFC pay-per-view event in 2015 that doesn’t go as planned and dips below the line that separates purchase-worthy from skippable, but it seems like the UFC has renewed its commitment to making its premium events truly premium. If it continues to do so (and the line-ups can mostly be maintained through fight night), 2015 will be a true test of what the company’s pay-per-view future could look like. The UFC can certainly justify low numbers when it puts forth the sorts of weak cards that were UFC 174 and UFC 177, but if the company fails to see a reversal in the downward buy-rate trend even while putting together substantially better cards, it might then be time to reconsider its strategy. The early portion of 2015 looks very promising from an advanced-scheduling standpoint, and we’ll see how the fans respond.