Is the UFC putting on too many shows?
For many fans, particularly the promotion's core audience, the answer is yes. With more than 40 cards in a year, they say, it has grown impossible to follow favored fighters from event to event, and new potential stars have been buried on platforms with few viewers to watch them. UFC shows used to feel special, and with a card nearly every weekend, it's difficult to get fired up even for the biggest shows.
The debate around oversaturation reached a fever pitch in 2014, when the promotion ran 45 events and suffered its worst year on pay-per-view in a decade. Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva were gone. Jon Jones hadn't developed into a consistent draw. Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor had yet to fully emerge as draws in their own rights. With only 3.2 million pay-per-views sold all year, it looked like the promotion might be in financial trouble, and Standard and Poor's downgraded Zuffa's credit rating.
2015 has seen an enormous turnaround in the UFC's fortunes. Talk of oversaturation has largely quieted, though it still occasionally crops up. With three major shows left this year, the promotion has already sold nearly 5 million pay-per-views and is easily on track to have its best year since 2010.
How has the UFC turned it around? There are two clear answers and one that's less obvious. Fewer stars have suffered injuries this year, for one. Second, Rousey and McGregor have emerged as legitimate pay-per-view draws in the aftermath of enormous media pushes.
The third answer is the most intriguing, and it has completely flown under the radar. The UFC hasn't advertised it, but the promotion is on track to run fewer shows this year than in the exhausting 2014. "There's no such thing as diluting the product," said UFC President Dana White in an interview with Sportsnet’s “Tim and Sid” show in July (h/t Mike Bohn of MMAJunkie.com), but actions speak louder than words. With the recent announcement of another show for December's "Go Big" campaign that culminates in UFC 194, the UFC will run only 41 events this year.
That marks a substantial shift from the schedule the UFC announced last November. The plan was to run 45 shows—one fewer than had been planned for 2014—with 13 pay-per-views, four shows on Fox, 18 on Fox Sports 1 and 10 events on Fight Pass.
Instead, the UFC has only scheduled five shows for Fight Pass in 2015, with a possible sixth if the recently announced event on December 10 also ends up on the platform. The four cards that have been cut were all intended to be international events of the sort the UFC broadcast last year on Fight Pass. Plans to go to Russia and Holland for the first time and back to Abu Dhabi never came to fruition.
Essentially, the UFC has scaled back its international aspirations and the proprietary platform that was supposed to represent the wave of the future. The return has been drastically more attractive Fight Night and pay-per-view cards, with higher buyrates and better ratings on network television.
We can think about the impact of the canceled shows in concrete ways. The first event that the UFC cut this year was scheduled to take place on March 7. UFC 184 took place on February 28 and UFC 185 on March 14. How much less attractive would an already weak UFC 184 have looked without Jake Ellenberger vs. Josh Koscheck? Would UFC 185 have performed as relatively well (310,000 buys) without Alistair Overeem vs. Roy Nelson and former champion Johny Hendricks vs. Matt Brown? Absolutely not.
UFC 191 provides another excellent hypothetical example. Already a card thrown together at the last minute—two months out and not a single bout had been announced—the pressure of filling two more Fight Night events, scheduled for August 29 and September 19, would have gutted it entirely. Imagine the justifiable outcry at a co-main event of Jan Blachowicz vs. Corey Anderson or Paige VanZant vs. Alex Chambers on a card headlined by Demetrious Johnson.
As a counterpoint, consider UFC 177 last August, one of the worst pay-per-view events in the promotion's history even before Renan Barao hit his head while cutting weight and had to be removed from the card. A weak Fight Pass event in Macau the weekend before included Michael Bisping vs. Cung Le and Tyron Woodley vs. Dong Hyun Kim, the only two meaningful fights on a card packed with utterly unappealing matchups.
While the addition of those fights wouldn't have turned UFC 177 into a smashing success, they would have made it substantially more attractive to discerning, dedicated consumers of the UFC's product. Throwing a couple of decent fights at the top of a card and then filling the rest with local nonsense just didn't sell to the UFCs audience, at least to the extent that it's even worth pulling those two decent fights from more worthy cards.
Cutting four events out of a schedule that still contains more than 40 shows might not seem like much, but that is between 80 and 100 fewer fighter slots that matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby have to fill. That has provided the UFC with a great deal more flexibility and much less roster turnover. The promotion has signed far fewer fighters this year—a staggering 231 fighters debuted in 2014, compared to 75 thus far in 2015—and their quality has been higher.
The UFC scraped the bottom of the talent pool in 2014, particularly in its new international markets. The argument about oversaturation was only partially about the sheer number of cards; the second and equally important piece was about the dilution of the product. The thinness of the available talent meant the UFC put on a bunch of really, really bad fights in 2014.
Take the UFC's two 2014 shows in Macau as an example. Most of the fighters who came from The Ultimate Fighter: China were not, to put it mildly, up to the promotion's usual standards. The Chinese market failed to embrace the UFC, and it hasn't run a single show in the country in 2015. Fight Pass subscribers certainly haven't complained about a lack of Macau events, and the promotion has lost little by abandoning its doomed effort at expansion into China.
It should go without saying, but better fighters tend to put on better fights. Even novice consumers can get a sense for when a competitor has no idea what he or she is doing. Cutting the number of cards has allowed the promotion to focus on developing the talent it already has and only signing fighters in whom it has a real interest, rather than simply the need to fill a slot on a weak international Fight Pass event.
And that's the genius of what the UFC has done in 2015. Much of its focus on international expansion seemed to be ill-directed and more concerned with hubris than concrete returns on its investment, and a strong dose of humility has brought the promotion back down to earth. Running events that at best break even while stripping more important cards of key talent is obviously not a winning formula.
The ripple effect of running fewer cards is tremendous. The UFC has been able to stack cards like UFC 189 and now UFC 194 with the kind of depth that makes them true must-see events, rather than one more show in an endless stream of UFC content. Gunnar Nelson vs. Demian Maia as the fifth fight on a pay-per-view instead of a Fight Pass headliner adds a wow factor for the discerning fan that a standalone event couldn't match.
Increased fan enthusiasm is hard to quantify, but a few more weeks off over the course of the year allows anticipation to build. And there have been fewer underwhelming cards to dull the gathering momentum.
The results of this strategy have been telling: stronger television ratings, higher pay-per-view buyrates and deeper, more compelling cards stacked with better talent. Forty-one events is still too many for some fans, but it is hard to argue with the promotion's success in 2015. A little pullback goes a long way, whether the UFC's pride allows it to advertise that fact or not.