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By: Jason Amadi, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
Following the first season of the Ultimate Fighter in 2005, the UFC saw an incredible period of exponential growth in North America. There were some low pay-per-view buys and some low television ratings along the way, but generally speaking everything from 2005 to 2010 trended upward for the UFC. Especially on pay-per-view, where they were able to set records year after year.
Unfortunately, as a result of injury, illness, new faces, and new champions, the UFC's unprecedented pay-per-view run ended in 2011. Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre were able to bring in big numbers at the beginning of the year, and Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones were able to close the year with a bang, but almost everything else tanked.
The more pay-per-views underperformed last year, the more people kicked around the idea that the UFC's popularity had begun to plateau in North America. Looking purely at the numbers, it certainly looked that way. Back when the UFC was on a steady rise, it was easy to forget what a star driven industry mixed martial arts truly was. It was easy to attribute their pay-per-view success to the strength of the UFC brand and not the name value that their top guys had worked the better part of a decade to achieve.
We're halfway through 2012, and it's fairly safe to say that the UFC's pay-per-view business is trending upwards once again. The first five UFC pay-per-view offerings this year featured title fights involving guys who headlined shows in 2011. Each fighter did a superior number this year than they did last year; in four of the five cases, markedly so.
Jose Aldo co-headlined two events last year, but his solo effort in 2012 brought in an estimated 235,000 buys; that's 10,000 more buys than UFC 136 did last October.
Nick Diaz took on B.J. Penn late last year at UFC 137 and headlined his very first UFC pay-per-view. That show did an estimated 280,000 buys. This year, Diaz was able to draw an estimated 400,000 buys at UFC 143 against Carlos Condit, an opponent who also had never headlined a UFC pay-per-view before.
UFC 144 featured a lightweight title fight between Frankie Edgar and Benson Henderson. The two lightweight title fights in 2011 drew two of the worst buyrates of the year. Last year, Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard headlined UFC 125 which drew an estimated 270,000 buys and UFC 136 which drew an estimated 225,000 buys. The Edgar-Henderson title fight from earlier this year did an estimated 375,000 buys.
Jon Jones fought on four UFC pay-per-views last year and headlined three of them in title fights. Jones put up some of the better numbers in 2011 and was able to do his best buyrate to date against Rashad Evans this year. UFC 145: Jones vs. Evans drew an estimated 700,000 pay-per-view buys.
Junior dos Santos headlined his first UFC pay-per-view ever against Shane Carwin last year at UFC 131 and drew an estimated 325,000 buys. This year, dos Santos drew an estimated 560,000 buys against Frank Mir.
Despite the death of the UFC's pay-per-view business evidently having been greatly exaggerated, the idea of the UFC's popularity having plateaued in North America remains pervasive. Some would suggest that the idea remains pervasive because of low television ratings on FX and a poor outing on Fox this past May, but I believe it's simply a result of the MMA community's refusal to adopt new metrics for success.
The UFC is no longer on Spike TV. Looking at a lot of the numbers the UFC is pulling on FX, perhaps they should be, but they aren't. There is no way to spin the fact the UFC has done significantly lower numbers for UFC on FX cards than they were for "UFC Fight Night" cards on Spike TV. There is also no way to spin the fact the Ultimate Fighter, Ultimate Fighter Finale card and UFC Primetime episodes are also well short of where they were just a few months ago on Spike TV.
However, to suggest that this is indicative of a decline in interest of the UFC product isn't really fair or rational. After all, pay-per-view is recovering from where it was last year and UFC pay-per-view prelims on FX are still on par with what the UFC was drawing on Spike.
The fact is, Friday night can be a pretty bad night for television viewership in general, but it's far and away the worst possible night for mixed martial arts programming.
It's really all in the numbers. The TUF 10 finale did an average 2.6 million viewers in Spike TV. The TUF 11 finale averaged 2 million viewers but peaked at 2.4 million. The TUF 12 finale averaged 2 million viewers and peaked at 2.3 million viewers. TUF 13 was the weird Brock Lesnar-Junior dos Santos season that aired on Wednesdays at an earlier timeslot, so the Finale number dipped to a 1.8 million viewer average. However, TUF 14 rebounded and did a 2.5 million average with a muscular 3.4 million viewer peak.
The TUF 15 finale drew a comparatively low one million viewers. The 15th season of the Ultimate Fighter in general was bottom of the barrel as far as the franchise goes. In fact, all of the UFC's Friday night content has been substantially lower than what they were doing last year.
Looking at the numbers, it's not hard to see what's changed. I suppose you form some convoluted theory based around "over saturation," but Occam's razor suggests that Friday nights are simply a terrible night for MMA.
Going forward, when looking at the UFC's numbers we all have to adopt new metrics for success; things are simply radically different than they were a year ago.
The UFC answers to different masters and is constantly expanding into new markets, most notably Brazil. The UFC has put on three cards there in the last year and none of them have been especially successful domestically. However, tens of millions of Brazilians have watched these events on television.
How do you measure success in that situation? If the UFC breaks even or better on the event in terms of pay-per-view and continues to put up big numbers internationally, can we really call that a failure?
Some just want to make definitive statements about the UFC's decline and they'll likely dismiss the Friday night timeslot woes and their international expansion as "excuses" and that's fine; and to an extent they aren't really wrong. However, for the rational, it's important to recognize that the UFC is swimming in much deeper waters this year than ever before. To be honest, they don't seem to be in danger of drowning any time soon.
Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @JasonAmadi and direct your "Ask the Torch" questions to email@example.com
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