One million. It's been the only number that matters for bald megalomaniacs since Dr. Evil let it roll off the tongue in Austin Powers. So of course, it's an obsession of sorts for UFC President Dana White and the entire UFC brass.
For the UFC, a pay-per-view doesn't have to reach a million homes to be successful—but it's still the number that separates a run-of-the-mill show from the legendary events, the shows whose mere number brings magical memories.
UFC 66. UFC 92. UFC 100. UFC 148.
Just that little tease is enough to send hardcore MMA fans into blissful daydreams.
There have been eight UFC events that have sold one million shows, starting with a much anticipated rematch between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz in 2006. The last one, earlier this year, was another heated rematch that saw Chael Sonnen fight Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight title.
That was a show that was built for years, with Sonnen pulling out every trick in the rhetorical book to attract casual fan interest. It's an act with diminishing returns. Unless he can eventually take home a UFC title, at some point fans aren't going to flock to Sonnen fights just to hear him talk. A fighter has to walk the walk too.
I think Sonnen has peaked as a pay-per-view draw. He may be able to create another extravaganza if matched with a hot star like Jon Jones, but he's unlikely to cause a million different men to press "Buy" on a million different remote controls.
So, will we ever see another million-buy show? And, more importantly for the UFC, what factors create a million-buy phenomenon?
The leading factor, historically, is the presence of Brock Lesnar. Half of the biggest shows in UFC history were main-evented by Lesnar. He's, by far, the biggest star in the sport's history. It's the main reason leaving him out of the UFC Hall of Fame is completely ludicrous.
But Brock Lesnar is the past.
He's not likely to make his way back to the UFC Octagon, so we'll have to look at the next factor that leads to PPV magic—a heated feud.
Starting with Ortiz and Liddell, two former training partners who came to hate each other with a fierce passion, angry words have been the best way to attract the attention of the masses. It doesn't work with just anyone, though—you have to be a legitimately great fighter and fans have to really believe the enmity was real.
This promotional technique is best illustrated by UFC 114's main event of Rashad Evans vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. The two were believable foes during a memorable season of The Ultimate Fighter, then continued to talk trash when injuries (and a Rampage star turn in The A-Team) delayed their fight.
The continued presence of the fight in the press was key. Fans never lost interest, even as the days turned to months. It's a lesson Sonnen took to heart and saw him essentially begin promoting his rematch with Anderson Silva immediately after losing the initial fight.
Could this be the route to a million-buy show? Of course. But right now, the feud that could carry a show to the promised land doesn't exist. That doesn't mean it won't ever exist—it just isn't on the horizon right now.
That leaves a final mechanism for securing a mega PPV buyrate: the stacked card. That has worked once before in UFC history, when UFC 92 featured three legitimate main events to just eke over the one million-buy plateau.
With the UFC spread thin as it is, this route seems unlikely. It certainly didn't happen at UFC 154, where Georges St-Pierre and Carlos Condit headline a card filled with hardcore favorites, but no other box office draws.
St-Pierre has never quite hit the million-buy mark on his own, though he's come close for a grudge match with B.J. Penn. He seems like the most likely fighter to galvanize fans behind him and sell shows by the bucket load. But it won't be with Carlos Condit, a great fighter who remains mostly unknown to mainstream fans.
When lightning flashes, you don't always know exactly where it's going to strike. Pay-per-view success works much the same way. I think the UFC will eventually hit the jackpot again. It just won't be anytime soon and we may not necessarily notice that it's brewing until the storm has already formed above our heads.
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