Here’s a fun fact, or perhaps a sobering one:
Financially speaking, it was a good year to be the two greatest mixed martial artists of all time. In March at UFC 158, St-Pierre tangled with Nick Diaz and accumulated an estimated 950,000 pay-per-view buys, the most ever for an event with GSP headlining. Silva’s December rematch with Chris Weidman at UFC 168 resulted in 1.03 million pay-per-view purchases, making it the second-best-selling UFC pay-per-view event of all time not featuring that guy who broke the Undertaker’s streak at this year’s Wrestlemania.
All told, the four events boasting St-Pierre and Silva combined to sell 3.16 million pay-per-views last year. The rest of the UFC’s 2013 offerings? All nine of them? They combined for 2.92 million.
Why dredge up all this old news now? Call it a roundabout way of saying: uh-oh.
|UFC 158: St-Pierre vs. Diaz||950,000|
|UFC 162: Silva vs. Weidman||550,000|
|UFC 167: St-Pierre vs. Hendricks||630,000|
|UFC 168: Silva vs. Weidman II||1,025,000|
Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer
As any non-accountant can attest, 2013 was actually not a great year for St-Pierre or Silva. The former middleweight champion got knocked out by Weidman at UFC 162 in July and then—in the aforementioned fight everyone tuned in to see—shattered his leg throwing a kick. GSP closed out the year with a controversial win over Johny Hendricks, a public meltdown and a retirement announcement.
Long story short, the UFC’s two most dependable pay-per-view draws are now gone, at least for a while.
Without them, it doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict that 2014 might be a tough year at the box office.
Just shy of five months into the year, that’s exactly what we’ve seen so far. With four events in the books, the UFC has sold an estimated 1.23 million units (for an average of 307,500 per show), which puts it on pace to have its worst pay-per-view year of the TUF era.
With probable modest sellers like next Saturday’s UFC 173 and June’s UFC 174 locked and loaded, the first half of 2014 seems assured to be a pretty bleak stretch for the world’s largest MMA promotion. At this rate, it’ll take some significant second-half surprises if the UFC hopes to equal the 6.08 million pay-per-views it sold in 2013, or even the 5.84 million it sold in 2012 (when St-Pierre missed most of the year with a knee injury).
Here’s hoping Nick Diaz and Gina Carano are staying close to their phones.
Without GSP and Silva (and with a host of other titlists nursing injuries), the fight company has had to lean heavily on active stars Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey to keep the train on the tracks. Thus far those two have accounted for the UFC’s top-selling pay-per-views this year—Jones with 350,000 buys against Glover Teixeira at UFC 172, Rousey with 340,000 against Sara McMann at UFC 170.
Even as the high watermarks, those numbers are fairly paltry for the UFC’s best available draws, especially considering last year Rousey helped boost UFC 168's monster number and Jones' battle against Chael Sonnen posted a respectable 550,000. Neither of their most recent numbers would even crack the top five of pay-per-views sold during 2013, though, as MMA Fighting’s Dave Meltzer wrote earlier this month, the relatively poor showings may have had a lot to do with underwhelming competition.
“Neither (Rousey nor Jones) had much help in their fights this year,” Meltzer wrote. “Rousey faced Sara McMann, who had … only fought once in UFC in a largely forgettable undercard win, and did little to build up the fight. Jones had it better, with Glover Teixeira, who had gone 5-0 in UFC … (But) even with former training partner (Chuck) Liddell out promoting, most fans saw Teixeira as an interlude fight, waiting for Jones to face either Alexander Gustafsson or Daniel Cormier.”
None of this necessarily means UFC buy rates are down across the board. In fact, the events of early 2014 have posted numbers similar to events not featuring either St-Pierre or Silva during 2012-13. UFC brass clearly aren’t panicking, secure in the notion that another generation of stars will always come along to replace the old one.
What it does mean, however, is that—since the fight company won’t enjoy it’s usual bump from having St-Pierre or Silva fight at least once a quarter—fans might keep a careful eye trained on UFC 175. That event, slated for July, will feature Weidman’s title defense against former light heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida and Rousey returning to put her gold on the line against Alexis Davis.
If that show dies the painful death of the unwatched? Then it might be time to start worrying.
Things will no doubt pick up a bit during the second half of the year, as UFC champions get healthy and matchmakers try to pull out all the stops for a gala New Year's Eve show. There is reason to believe Jones’ rematch with Gustafsson (thought to be targeted for late summer) will do big business and a potential end-of-the-year matchup between the champ and Cormier would as well.
Rumors of a superfight between Rousey and Carano, as well as a nice little lightweight title fight pitting Anthony Pettis against Gilbert Melendez mean that we probably haven’t seen the best the UFC will offer in 2014 just yet.
In other positive news, Silva is currently mounting a comeback, targeting his return for early 2015, and the smart money says the organization will eventually come to terms to get St-Pierre back in the cage as well.
Then again, even if Silva and GSP do return, it will likely only be for a fight or two. Sooner or later, we will all have to get used to life without them.
The Brock Lesnar boom times are now squarely in the rearview mirror and new stars like Weidman, Pettis and Cain Velasquez have yet to really take hold with consumers. Eventually, somebody is going to have to seize the superstar baton and run with it. They have no other choice. Failure isn’t a (viable) option.
If that happens, perhaps we’ll look back on 2014 as something of a rebuilding year, one caught between the old regimes and the new.
For now though, Silva and St-Pierre continue to cast a long shadow, even when they aren’t around.