The UFC has its problems, but one stands out as more serious and scary than the rest: Fewer and fewer people are interested in what it’s selling.
Even as UFC president Dana White touts his company’s record profitability in 2017, there’s no getting around the basic fact that the company isn’t doing well in the medium and long term. By several different metrics, the UFC’s audience is declining. Moreover, if the ubiquitous commercials for male vitality products like Nugenix during broadcasts weren’t a big enough clue, the audience that remains is aging out of the coveted youth demographic that the promotion used to sell itself to advertisers for so long. Anecdotally, fan enthusiasm seems to be at a low ebb. But every actual metric suggests that things are even worse than they feel.
With TV contract negotiations looming, 2018 will be a key year for the promotion. All indicators are trending downward, with nothing pointing to Fox or ESPN shelling out big money for the UFC’s content. The next two months of the UFC’s schedule—five events spread over three continents, none of them terribly compelling—encapsulate the how and the why of this shockingly quick fall from grace. At the core of it is a fundamental question that the promotion has to figure out how to answer: Why should a potential viewer care about the UFC?
It wasn’t always such a difficult question. Both 2015 and 2016 were record-breaking years for the promotion, and the rise of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor and staggering pay-per-view buy-rates took UFC to hundreds of millions of dollars in profits and unprecedented mainstream relevance. It also led directly to the promotion’s $4 billion sale to burgeoning entertainment conglomerate WME-IMG in 2016; at the time, the UFC was the crown jewel of their many new acquisitions. There was no reason even to ask why people might care about the UFC. The answer was obvious: because McGregor and Rousey were both genuine celebrities outside the cage and a joy to watch inside it.
It was easy to be bullish about the UFC’s future during the heady days of July 2016. Sure, Rousey had lost to Holly Holm, but there was no reason to think she wouldn’t be back. McGregor was coming off two extraordinarily successful pay-per-view fights against Jose Aldo and Nate Diaz, and the rematch with Diaz was set for the next month. Brock Lesnar had returned to headline the UFC 200 show that cracked a million buys. Jon Jones had tested positive for a PED, which was not great, but if and when he returned, he too would be a marketable property. In a star-driven pay-per-view market, having WME-IMG on board to help push the promotion’s fighters into the spotlight looked like a no-brainer. The TV ratings were good enough, if not mind-boggling. There was good reason to think the next UFC contract might go for as much as $450 million per year.
In retrospect, the situation wasn’t nearly as good as it looked. The success of Rousey and McGregor disguised deeper structural issues with the UFC’s product. Those two linchpin stars drew record-breaking buy-rates at marquee events and the promotion could scrape together enough star power for standout shows like UFC 200, but the audience for everything else was shrinking.
During its pay-per-view glory years between 2008 and 2010, the UFC had a wide array of marketable draws outside the best-known stars and a strong-enough brand that fans felt compelled to buy events even when they didn’t feature elite fighters. Reliable draws like BJ Penn routinely pulled 500,000 or more buys and even dismally booked shows performed well: 2010’s UFC 119 card, headlined by an injury-replacement fight nobody was asking for between Mirko Cro Cop and Frank Mir, still drew nearly 300,000 buys.
In 2017, by contrast, it took two compelling title fights and a stacked lineup to drag last May’s UFC 211 card to the 300,000-buy mark. A poor offering—UFC 215, with a women’s bantamweight title fight featuring Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko on the marquee—drew just 100,000 buys, which is the low-water mark in the promotion’s modern era. The proportion of the UFC’s audience that’s willing to pay $59.99 for low-end content has fallen drastically. Middle-class draws like Penn or Rashad Evans aged out of relevance or retired altogether, and haven’t been replaced by fighters who inspire comparable interest from the fans; the UFC 211 numbers bear this out. The UFC fooled itself into thinking that it would always be able to convince a huge number of consumers to buy what it was selling simply because it was branded “UFC.” It has never quite rid itself of that assumption, even as the evidence against it has continued to mount.
The biggest problem has been the UFC’s enormous expansion into TV. After a successful run on Spike TV, the promotion debuted on Fox with much fanfare back in November of 2011. This was supposed to mark the UFC’s transformation into a mainstream sports property. It would appear on network TV alongside the NFL, MLB, and NASCAR. Millions of potential new fans would be exposed to the glories of MMA. When Fox Sports 1 launched in 2013, the UFC would be one of the linchpins of the new network.
In hindsight, it’s obvious that the UFC rushed headlong into an expansion that it didn’t have the roster depth to support. In 2011, the last year before the Fox deal fully took hold, the UFC put on 27 events and 300 fights. They sold about 6.5 million pay-per-views. In 2014, a disastrous year, the UFC put on 46 events and 503 fights and sold about 3.2 million pay-per-views. After the Rousey- and McGregor-driven triumphs of 2015-16, 2017 saw 39 events and 457 fights, with roughly 4.1 million pay-per-view sales, not counting whatever they made from the Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather boxing grift.
Despite years of saturating the market, the UFC has repeatedly failed to turn its breakneck schedule into a new crop of viable draws. The ratings for the UFC’s big shows on Fox have seen a steady decline. The last event on the network, which featured a middleweight bout between Jacare Souza and Derek Brunson, had the smallest audience in series history. Just 1.77 million viewers tuned in. This isn’t an isolated data point, either. Last December’s show, which featured a strong card headlined by former champions Robbie Lawler and Rafael dos Anjos, had the lowest ratings of any December offering from the promotion by a wide margin.
Over on Fox Sports 1, ratings have steadied, but at a level that’s lower than either the promotion or network would probably prefer. A December card pulled 870,000 viewers, for example, and one in March did 946,000. Only rare events, like the January 2015 show that featured Conor McGregor or the January 2016 offering with a title fight between Dominick Cruz and TJ Dillashaw, have stood out from the pack.
The upshot is that the UFC has a baseline audience that will tune in for whatever it’s offering on Fox Sports 1 and a broader but shrinking one on Fox. The bottom of the pay-per-view market fell out years ago, and it’s unlikely to rise back up. This is not a great position for the promotion to be in as it sets out in search of its next big contract.
We could point to any number of reasons for this, but the UFC’s next five scheduled events are as good a summation as any: The UFC just doesn’t have enough star power to pull viewers and buyers to all its events. When you ask viewers to care about your product, giving them fighters they know and enjoy is the easiest way to make the sale. At this point, there simply isn’t enough name value in the promotion to pull that off. This Saturday’s UFC 221 headliner features an interim middleweight title fight between former champion Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero. It happens to be an outstanding matchup and compelling matchup between two guys I really like. Despite the fact that Rockhold held the belt and Romero fought for one just last summer, though, it’s not going to sell much of anything.
Constant fight cancellations due to injury have made this problem far worse. UFC 221 is being held in Perth, Australia. If you were puzzled as to why a fight between a Californian and a Cuban who lives in Florida is taking place in Perth, it’s because the event was initially supposed to feature middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who lives and trains in Australia. March 3’s UFC 222, in Las Vegas, was supposed to feature a banger of a featherweight title fight between Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar. That matchup was canceled after Holloway suffered an injury. This marked the second time the fight has been canceled after they were initially scheduled to meet last December.
Less than a month out, UFC 222 has just gotten its new headliner, a mismatch of staggering proportions between featherweight champion Cris Cyborg and anonymous Russian Yana Kunitskaya. The lead fight for the UFC on Fox event the week before is an entertaining but existentially meaningless fight between featherweights Jeremy Stephens and Josh Emmett. A welterweight action fight between Donald Cerrone and Yancy Medeiros headlines a Fox Sports 1 Fight Night card, while a Fight Night in London features former heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum and the relatively unknown Alexander Volkov. With all these fights on the docket, there’s no margin for error or backup plan if or when another fight falls through due to injury. The promotion’s elite fighters are spread too thin already.
Despite that, there will still be entertaining fights on practically all these cards. The problem isn’t the product, it’s how poorly it’s being sold. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the fights in the cage; it’s that nobody knows or cares who these guys are. This means that the product that the UFC is selling, then, is relatively anonymous, undifferentiated violence—two men or women you don’t really recognize hitting each other for minuscule amounts of money. There’s no larger narrative or ability to sell potential viewers on the broader meaning of what they’re seeing, or about why any individual event is worth watching. With five events in the next six weeks, how can any single fight, let alone an entire event, tell a story worth hearing?
When you’re running 20 or 24 events per year, you can convince fans that every card is can’t-miss. When you’re running an event practically every week, that’s no longer the case. The fans can’t get to know the fighters. Even the champions are just more indistinguishable faces in an ever-larger crowd.
This is the core problem with the UFC’s product, and the biggest threat to the promotion’s medium- and long-term future. There’s obviously an audience for faceless, skilled violence that carries the UFC branding. It’s not a small one, either, but that audience isn’t growing in any meaningful way. Rousey and McGregor could pull viewers from the mainstream, but those viewers didn’t stick around for the rest of what the UFC was offering.
The situation looks bleaker now than it has in some time. Rousey is gone to the WWE. McGregor made somewhere in the range of $100 million for his farcical fight with Floyd Mayweather and seems intent on scoring another huge payday with the semi-retired boxer. Unless another megastar emerges out of the blue, the UFC is stuck with a pay-per-view product that’s not getting any more compelling and a TV one that’s stagnant at best and declining at worst.
And still there is that glaring question: Why should anybody care? Why does any of this matter? If you just like watching anonymous people punch and kick and twist each other’s limbs with consummate and ever-increasing skill, the UFC has a great product for you. If you’re down for the violence but want some extra meaning, some storyline or compelling character you can sink your teeth into, the 2018 version of the UFC doesn’t have much to offer.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. As long as it’s paying the fighters peanuts and slashing its costs to the bone—by $55 million in 2017 alone—and as long as it’s selling lucrative sponsorship deals and drawing escalating TV rights fees from its domestic and international deals, it may not really matter whether people are actually tuning in to watch the UFC.
But I don’t believe that’s the case. Record profits on corporate balance sheets aren’t a substitute for your audience actually giving a shit about what you’re selling. At some point, the value of those sponsorships and TV rights deals hinge upon people actually caring about what they’re being given to watch. At some point, you just can’t have one without the other.