Just in case anyone was wondering, UFC President Dana White wants us all to know the state of his company is strong, thank you very much.
"Business has never been better for us,” White told Yahoo’s Kevin Iole this week, bolstered by healthy live-gate figures from the UFC’s recent shows in New Zealand and San Antonio, as well as his estimation that paid attendance for UFC 175 could top $5 million.
Iole wrote White “angrily scoffed” at recent criticisms that the world’s largest MMA organization is spreading itself too thin, quoting the bombastic UFC boss saying he was “just sick of listening to it, because it's so (expletive) stupid and wrong. People are (expletive) without any facts.”
Not that he’d tell us if anything was wrong, mind you. The UFC guards most of its financials as state secrets, so any effort to gauge the promotion’s health necessarily includes a lot of conjecture. It would be easier on everyone if the company opened its books, but so long as it won’t, we all have to make do with the information that is available.
That’s why, despite White’s assurances that everything is fine, many observers will be carefully watching the pay-per-view performance of Saturday night’s broadcast from Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
This is believed to be an important event for the UFC. With concerns lingering that its PPV numbers might be trending in the wrong direction, UFC 175 figures to be the organization’s best-selling card of the first half of 2014. It may also be an indicator of how rocky or rosy the rest of the year will be in our little corner of the sports world.
Those critics whom White talks about may be off base, but they’re certainly not hard to find. With broad-based concerns about the strength of the UFC’s product gaining traction in the public conversation, UFC 175’s buyrate will be the company’s best chance to prove it can still move the needle when it takes the time to put together a worthy lineup of fights.
If this show sells big—if estimates top 500,000 buys, for example—it could ease a lot of minds. On the other hand, if it slumps to the finish line, it will no doubt be viewed as a sign that the UFC’s problems run deeper than White wants to admit.
UFC 175 is as stacked as a UFC event gets amid its current breakneck schedule. It features title fights from Chris Weidman and Ronda Rousey and a supporting cast of crowd favorites like Lyoto Machida, Stefan Struve and Matt Mitrione, not to mention a preliminary lead-in from former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber.
Its promotional might was undermined a bit when Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva both ran afoul of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, but it’s still expected to do well.
Exactly how well may be our best barometer of what to expect from the UFC's immediate future.
The company topped 500,000 PPV buys five times per year during 2012-13. It did it four times in 2011, and in 2010 it exceeded the half-million mark 11 times, including twice passing 1 million buys with UFCs 114 and 116.
But during the first half of 2014, the UFC hasn’t reached 500,000 buys at all. So far, this year’s high watermark has been the 350,000 PPVs sold for Jon Jones’ UFC 172 title defense against Glover Teixeira.
To cast matters into even sharper relief, UFC 175 comes immediately on the heels of last month’s flyweight-led UFC 174, which was initially rumored to have moved fewer than 100,000 units.
Iole wrote this week that that show may have pulled off “about 125,000,” but either way it was likely the lowest-selling UFC PPV of recent memory. Saturday’s event also comes one month before UFC 176, which suddenly looks pretty paltry after 145-pound champion Jose Aldo pulled out with an injury.
All told, it means UFC 175 will certainly be the company’s most lucrative PPV until at least late September, when Jones rematches Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 178. If this weekend’s show doesn’t crack 500,000 buys, it could very well be a bad sign for an organization already in danger of having its worst PPV year since the advent of The Ultimate Fighter reality show back in 2005.
|Estimated Buyrates of the UFC's 2014 PPVs|
|UFC 169||Barao vs. Faber||2/1/14||230,000|
|UFC 170||Rousey vs. McMann||2/22/14||340,000|
|UFC 171||Hendricks vs. Lawler||3/15/14||310,000|
|UFC 172||Jones vs. Teixeira||4/26/14||350,000|
|UFC 173||Barao vs. Dillashaw||5/24/14||215,000|
|UFC 174||Johnson vs. Bagautinov||6/14/14||125,000|
|MMA Fighting.com/Yahoo Sports|
The UFC began 2014 behind the eight ball, without the benefit of PPV stalwarts Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva on its active roster. Since then, the injury bug has nipped it ruthlessly hard. Even before Aldo withdrew from UFC 176, many of its titlists were already on the disabled list.
Heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez is ailing and won’t fight until November. Welterweight titlist Johny Hendricks recently had surgery on a torn bicep. By the time lightweight champion Anthony Pettis gets back in the cage against Gilbert Melendez near the end of the near, he will have missed 15 months after a knee injury.
In other words, the UFC will be out a lot of star power for most of this year, which means the bulk of its sales push will have to come from next-generation stars like Jones, Weidman and Rousey.
Can they manage it? We’re about to find out.
Rousey and Weidman both fought at last December’s UFC 168, which topped 1 million PPV buys and was the promotion’s biggest-selling offering of 2013. But that buyrate was driven by Weidman’s rematch with Silva and Rousey’s second fight with archenemy Miesha Tate. It didn’t necessarily turn them into salable draws overnight.
Rousey—hailed far and wide as the UFC’s next big thing—sold 340,000 PPVs with her main event fight against Sara McMann at UFC 170 in February. But she’s a prohibitive betting favorite this weekend against Alexis Davis, per Best Fight Odds, and it remains to be seen if fans will continue to turn out in numbers to watch her blow past overmatched competition.
Weidman may be an even bigger wild card. He beat Silva in back-to-back appearances last year but still hasn’t been granted much cachet with fans, after both those fights ended via unorthodox means.
He’ll be taking on a former light heavyweight champion in Machida—who has topped 500,000 buys in four of the six previous UFC PPVs he’s headlined—and likely needs an impressive victory to start working his way into the good graces of spectators.
If Rousey’s and Machida’s considerable fanbases turn out, and those curious to see how good Weidman really is take the PPV plunge, UFC 175 will no doubt be the brightest spot in what has been a rough first half of 2014 for the UFC.
The fight company also has good opportunities coming up at UFC 178, Velasquez’s scheduled return at UFC 180 and its traditionally stellar end-of-the-year PPV. Assuming those cards sell like they should, the promotion should see a considerable second-half rebound.
If that’s going to happen, though—and if White is going to be any less annoyed by the chattering from the peanut gallery—the comeback story must start on Saturday.