The UFC’s Pay-Per-View Problem
There is a pattern emerging as we enter the second full year of UFC ownership under WME/Endeavor. Their style of running the company appears to be to load up two or three cards a year as some sort of super events, one centered around International Fight Week in Las Vegas in July and one at Madison Square Garden in November. And maybe the New Year’s card if they can manage it. Those events are always great, they build a lot of buzz and I’m sure do great numbers for them. But there is a price to pay for that strategy and the most obvious of which are these “dead zones” that immediately follow the mega events. From January through March has been paper thin the past two years and August through October was very similar in 2017. They tried to mask it this year by giving us great main events in these months. Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou and Daniel Cormier vs. Volkan Oezdemir was a great way to start the year at UFC 220 in Boston. As long as you didn’t mind a relatively weak undercard.
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Unfortunately February and March have shown why the boxing model of having a great main event and not a whole lot under it is risky at best and just a bad idea at worst. For UFC 221 we were scheduled to get Australian Robert Whittaker defending the middleweight belt in his home country against former champion Luke Rockhold. Unfortunately Whittaker had to pull out due to illness so they pulled Yoel Romero from his already scheduled fight against David Branch on FOX and put him in against Rockhold. Since their other big strategy appears to be every Pay-Per-View has to have a title fight on it (The last UFC PPV that was headlined without a title on the line was UFC 202: McGregor vs Diaz 2, in August 2016), they slapped an interim championship onto it. Despite Romero coming off a loss to the champ in his last fight and the FOX card in Orlando most likely losing its main event, it was the right fight to make. Rockhold/Romero was a great fight, unfortunately Romero missed weight before knocking Luke out cold this past weekend so he didn’t earn the interim belt but it looks like hes going to rematch Whittaker anyway as soon as they’re both healthy.
Despite a great main event, UFC 221 is up there as one of the worst Pay-Per-Views the company has ever charged money for. Not that the fights weren’t entertaining, they were for the most part but thats just the nature of the sport. They were just lacking in any star power whatsoever as well as any significance in the rankings. Curtis Blaydes (great name) beat Mark Hunt via unanimous decision in the co-main event but that is probably the only other fight where anyone reading this would recognize any of the names or faces. The fights were mostly involving hometown fighters and would’ve made a lot of sense as a Fight Night card or if it was only being broadcast in the Australia/New Zealand area but as a PPV where you’re charging $60+ its insane to expect this to do any real business. Tai Tuivasa, Jake Matthews, and Tyson Pedro aren’t going to make casual fans say “Man I can’t miss this! I’m staying in tonight!”.
Its also hard to understand what the UFC was thinking when it comes to bout order on this card. The first three fights on the main card would typically be on the prelims for a Fight Night event let alone a Pay-Per-View. Meanwhile there are three fights on the prelims that made a lot more sense on the main card. The UFC has had trouble promoting the men’s flyweight division, even going as far as considering selling it off, yet they buried an important fight between two guys ranked in the top 10 early in the night. Jussier Formiga has been one of the best flyweights in the world for a long time and set himself up to potentially get a title shot by submitting Ben Nguyen but nobody saw it. Australian prospect Alexander Volkanovski got the biggest win of his career TKO’ing fellow prospect Jeremy Kennedy. He deserves a big step up now but who is going to want to fight him when nobody knows who he is? And potential star in the making Israel Adesanya showed off his explosive striking by knocking out Rob Wilkinson. To be fair they did throw that fight onto the PPV broadcast after the main event.
Its a similar story next month at UFC 222. Max Holloway was once again set to defend his title against Frankie Edgar and once again an injury took it away from us. Last time Edgar broke his face, this time Holloway injured his ankle. And because, much like UFC 221, the event was so empty under the main event the UFC had to scramble to even justify keeping it as a Pay-Per-View. They tried to make the TJ Dillashaw vs. Cody Garbrandt rematch on very short notice but it didn’t work out. Instead dominant women’s featherweight champion Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Justino will defend her belt once again, this time against Yana Kunitskaya who will be making her UFC debut. Frankie Edgar will remain on the card in the co-main event against undefeated prospect and submission specialist Brian Ortega in a title eliminator. Thats a solid top two fights for a lesser PPV but again the undercard is lacking. Its not as bad as UFC 221 but they better cross their fingers that there are no more injuries before March 3rd rolls around.
But hey, at least we have that July mega event to look forward to where we already know we’re getting at least one champion versus champion match. Heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic is set to defend his belt against light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier after they coach a season of The Ultimate Fighter. Also heavily rumored is bantamweight belt holder TJ Dillashaw going down to flyweight to challenge champion, and pound for pound best in the world, Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson. Cyborg vs. women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes was also rumored but they each have other fights lined up now following the UFC 222 fiasco. Theres also UFC 223 in April that looks very promising. We finally could see a fight between the best two lightweights in the world, Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Fourth times the charm. And we’re scheduled to get a rematch between Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk after Rose shocked the world at UFC 217 last November.
The problem isn’t necessarily the new Pay-Per-View strategy. Its that there are too many events to properly implement it. They are currently contractually obligated to put on four FOX cards and 18 Fight Night events on FS1. That is on top of the 12/13 Pay-Per-Views and six Fight Pass cards they put out per year. There just isn’t enough top talent when you consider injuries and contract negotiations to keep up with that. This is the last year of the current TV deal so its very important that the next deal (or deals) they sign take this into account. I’d like to see them go from the 40+ events per year to something like 26-30. In my mind they could cut down the number of PPV’s to 6-8 so that they load them up and make them all worth paying for. In my plan this would still leave about two other events each month to put on TV in some way. They may need to cut down on the roster a bit but that has needed to happen for some time now. What we’ve learned over the past few years is that more is not necessarily always better. Time will tell if the UFC agrees with that or we just need to get used to a boom or bust model.
An auxiliary member of the MMAJA, Bob used to run the baseball blog 'The Oriole Report' before transitioning to podcasting about movies, TV, Video Games, and MMA. 'The Redbox Report' movie podcast was started in 2013 followed by 'The Redbelt Report' MMA podcast in 2016. In 2018 they were merged into 'Phelan to Communicate', a podcast that can be found on iTunes and a blog that can be found at http://PhelanToCommunicate.wordpress.com. Bob has also written for Konsume.com and BaltimoreSportsReport.com and delivers mail for a living in Baltimore County. Follow him on Twitter @PhelanToTweet.