T.J. Dillashaw (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

UFC 177 Pay-Per-View: A Tale of Potential Value vs. Actual Value

With any purchase in life, one must assess the true value of an item both before and after the purchase is made in order to determine whether one’s money was well spent. Before the purchase, prospective buyers weigh the cost of an item against the potential benefits its purchase will present. After the purchase, buyers then determine whether the item was, in fact, worth the money spent based on the usefulness or enjoyment it provides.

Anyone who watched UFC 177, and especially those who opted to buy it at home, can relate quite well to this two-part exercise in product analysis. The event’s main card, which carried with it a pay-per-view price of $55, underwent a bevy of changes before it began last Saturday night. In its earliest iteration, UFC 177 was slated to take place in Las Vegas and feature a light heavyweight title fight between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson as its main event. The company then announced that Jones/Gustafsson would actually take place at UFC 178, and that UFC 177 would instead showcase bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw defending his title against Renan Barão in front of a friendly Sacramento, Calif., crowd.

After the disappointment that was UFC 174 and subsequent cancellation of UFC 176 (both due to lack of marketable pay-per-view cards), the UFC added a second title fight—one between flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and eighth-ranked Chris Cariaso—to the UFC 177 main card in order to bolster its commercial appeal, at which point the card looked pretty decent. Unfortunately, real life sullied the UFC’s plans for its late-August show when Jones was pulled from his UFC 178 fight (now with Daniel Cormier) after suffering an injury, at which point the UFC moved Johnson/Cariaso to that event’s headlining spot. This left UFC 177 with just a single marketable fight—the bantamweight title contest—with which to sell the event to a wider audience.


But it wasn’t over yet.

Literally hours before the UFC 177 weigh-ins were to commence, news broke that Barão had abruptly withdrawn from his title rematch with Dillashaw due to problems cutting weight. With few other options beyond simply canceling its second consecutive pay-per-view event, the UFC installed Joe Soto, a man making his UFC debut and originally slated to appear in the UFC 177 prelims, as the last-minute replacement to face Dillashaw. Take nothing away from Soto (after all, the man is a former champion in two other promotions), but you can imagine how quickly the UFC 177 projected pay-per-view buyrate fell when the event was changed from UFC 177: Jones vs. Gustafsson to UFC 177: Dillashaw vs. Barao/Johnson vs. Cariaso and ultimately to UFC 177: Dillashaw vs. Soto.

Even before the eleventh-hour change to the main event, UFC 177 was already getting a lot of criticism (including from this writer) due to its perceived thin lineup. Why, those critics asked, should fans pay a premium price for an event that did not contain any premium fights? Sure, there was a bantamweight title fight at the top of the card, but the title challenger was plucked from the prelims the day before the fight having never before competed in the UFC, so how much significance would the fight really have?

It was under this unfortunate set of circumstances, as well as the ability to compare UFC 177 to the vastly superior (on paper) UFC 178, that MMA fans had to make the pre-purchase evaluation for last Saturday’s fights. Something tells me that we won’t be hearing about the card’s buyrate anytime soon.

Some fans, for whatever reason, concluded that despite the thin and scrambled nature of the UFC 177 main card, they’d part ways with their inanimate friends Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln and tune in to the event’s pay-per-view battles. Perhaps they’re the sorts of fans who will watch every UFC event, no matter what. A lot of people would say that, but UFC 177 truly put that statement to the test. Perhaps these fans just had nothing else better to do on Saturday. Perhaps, like me, they realized that a night out would almost surely constitute spending even more than the cost of UFC 177, so even with the suspect nature of the card it was still the more economical choice. Whatever the reason, fans who purchased UFC 177 probably shut off the television after the main event feeling pretty good about their purchase. While many of these fans (myself included) probably cringed a little before hitting the “Buy” button on their remotes, the main card of UFC 177 actually ended up delivering some exciting bouts.

For starters, four of the pay-per-view fights ended in a stoppage, which, while not ultra-rare, still doesn’t happen all that often. One of my main concerns as a UFC 177 buyer was that I’d end up with a UFC 174 situation on my hands; that is, a card without much commercial appeal that ends up being a decision-fest. I’m not saying that fights that go the distance can’t be exciting, but generally speaking those that end before the final horn tend to contain more action. Regardless, with three KO/TKO stoppages to go along with Yancy Medeiros’s unorthodox submission of Damon Jackson, Saturday’s fights did not require fans to evaluate that statement but once.

Those KO/TKO stoppages were applied by three fighters who got a ton of positive exposure on Saturday night, and who all UFC fans should keep an eye on. First, Carlos Diego Ferreira notched his second impressive victory in as many UFC fights when he made Ramsey Nijem do the stanky leg early in the second round of their main-card fight. Then, undefeated women’s bantamweight contender Bethe Correia emerged victorious after her bout with Shayna Baszler turned into a hockey fight which referee John McCarthy stopped when Baszler had taken too much damage. Finally, in the night’s main event, bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw put on another solid showing in defense of his bantamweight title, punctuating his performance with a head kick that ended it for late-replacement opponent Joe Soto in the fourth round.

Even in defeat, though, Soto provided one more reason to remember UFC 177 in a positive light. Despite his impressive resume from the MMA circuit outside the Octagon, he was rightfully listed as a significant betting underdog against the champion Dillashaw. After all, the man was making his UFC debut and fighting the best 135-pounder in the world on about 30 hours’ notice. Honestly, I was curious to see how the guy would do. Most of the time, things go according to plan matchup-wise in MMA (i.e. overwhelming favorites like Dillashaw end up starching underdogs like Soto), but pretty much nothing had gone according to plan for UFC 177, so I figured there was at least a small chance I’d witness one of the greatest upsets in sports history. While that didn’t end up being the case, Soto performed admirably, and certainly fought his way to at least a step up in bantamweight competition compared to where he originally found himself for UFC 177. Expect Soto to appear on the main card of a UFC event in the near future, hopefully with a decent pay bump to go along with it.

All things considered, UFC 177 could have gone a lot worse. I mentioned UFC 174 before, which had a weak card that didn’t produce much on pay-per-view, but that’s just an example of an event living down to people’s already-low expectations. The worst is when a card that has a very high potential for excitement ends up being a dud. The best example I can think of here is UFC 114, headlined by the highly anticipated fight between Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Rashad Evans. For the entire season of The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights, Jackson and Evans engaged in the sort of verbal sparring that rightly created a tremendous amount of hype behind their eventual meeting in the Octagon. So thick was the on-air tension between the two former champions that fans were all but certain their showdown would be a spectacular showcase of violence. In fact, the potential value of UFC 114 was so great that it became one of just seven UFC events to achieve a million pay-per-view buys. Unfortunately, fans’ expectations went unsatisfied that evening in May 2010, with Evans grappling his way to a decision victory that was anything but spectacular.

Obviously, the UFC only has so much control over how customers evaluate its events before and after they take place. The UFC can do its best to put together a decent card, only to have it ravaged by injuries or other circumstances beyond the promotion’s control. While the UFC 177 main card was never the sort that was going to do a million buys, the company seems to have learned its lesson from UFC 174, UFC 176 and UFC 177 as UFC 178’s main card is about as attractive as one not featuring Jones or Ronda Rousey can get. Here’s hoping that trend continues beyond Sept. 27, and that the inclusion of more marketable pay-per-view fights will provide a cushion when one or more of them is altered, rather than leaving the UFC in the lurch it found itself in late last week.

All the same, who’s to say that UFC 178 will end up being as good a value as people are anticipating? While fans will probably get to see at least a few stoppages or otherwise exciting contests, there’s really no way to predict how fighters will conduct themselves in the cage. The UFC surely thought it had pugilistic gold on its hands after TUF: Heavyweights built such a vitriolic rivalry between Jackson and Evans (and, from a buyrate perspective, it did), but UFC President Dana White couldn’t have felt good after the actual fight ended up being a bit of a stinker. After all, when fans do end up springing for a UFC pay-per-view and it doesn’t meet their expectations, the chances they’ll buy another one decrease considerably. The UFC can schedule fighters who have reputations for bringing the action, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll live up to those reputations on fight night. At this point, with the UFC’s roster as deep as it’s ever been, the sort of highly-anticipated-but-ultimately-unfulfilling headliners like Jackson/Evans at UFC 114 will likely be rare, though certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. Unfortunately, fights like that are completely beyond the UFC’s control, though the company has certainly done its part to encourage action through post-fight bonuses (official and otherwise).

With the recent proliferation of free UFC events across the Fox family of networks, fans now have frequent, less expensive options for satisfying their MMA appetites. For this reason alone, the UFC must continue to focus on the one part of fight promoting that it can control: the cards themselves. This year has not been a great one for the UFC’s pay-per-view events, and to right the ship, the company must ensure that the premium cards it produces have the appropriate potential value to elicit a decent number of buys. Sure, the UFC can cross its fingers and hope that a pay-per-view event delivers enough action to make fans want to order the next one, but it simply cannot count on events of the on-paper caliber of UFC 177 to attract fans, regardless of how much those fans enjoyed previous cards.

Instead, the UFC must redouble its efforts to make fans excited to spend their money before the events it produces. After all, no matter how good a night’s pay-per-view fights actually end up being, it doesn’t matter if no one pays to watch.