(It’s almost 2014. Dan Henderson and Vitor Belfort are still main-eventing UFC cards. / photo via Getty)
By Matt Saccaro
Cards like UFC Fight Night 32 are contributing to the death of MMA’s popularity in the US.
In case you haven’t noticed, the UFC’s numbers have been atrocious lately. UFC 165, a card headlined by the light heavyweight champion of the world and future of the company Jon Jones, drew a paltry 325,000 buys. Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos III—the finale to the greatest trilogy in UFC heavyweight history—drew a slightly higher number at UFC 166.
The UFC has had woes on free television too. TUF is regularly breaking the wrong kinds of records. And the ratings on FOX Sports 1 have been inconsistent at best. They started strong with a tremendous 1.7 million (back to 2011 Spike TV levels) for UFC Fight Night 26, dropped 54% to 824,000 viewers for UFN 27, fell a further 35% to 539,000 for UFN 28, rose to 638,000 for 29, and stayed at that level for the next fight night card on FOX Sports 1, UFC Fight Night 31 (a.k.a. UFC Fight for the Troops 3).
Not counting UFC Fight Night 32 (the ratings aren’t out at the time of writing), the average viewership for UFC Fight Night cards on FS1 is 884,400. The average viewership for the last five “Fight Night” events the UFC held on Spike TV is over twice that number at a little over two million (1.8 million for UFN 25, 2.2 million for UFN 24, 2.5 million for UFN 23, 1.6 million for UFN 22, and 2 million for UFN 21).
UFC Fight Night 30, the lone Fight Night that’s been featured on FOX Sports 2, only drew 122,000 viewers and was outdrawn by World Series of Fighting 6, which scored 161,000 viewers.
What about that event stood out? What about that event made people say, “I need to keep watching the UFC”?
The card was stacked with middling Brazilian fighters and prospects only the hardcore fans and journalists knew or cared about. Fans will say that the card was great because there were finishes, but that’s a short-sighted and extremely myopic view. Yes, four of the six bouts on the main card were finishes, but what’s a finish worth when nobody is watching?
The casual fan, the group on which the UFC’s growth and popularity in the United States is dependent, doesn’t care about finishes. The casual fan cares about names, about stars. The guy who wears tapout and does bicep curls in the squat rack talks about Kimbo Slice and Brock Lesnar, not about the intricacies of a setup for an armbar or a triangle.
Ask yourself this: What did UFC Fight Night 32 do to regain the swaths of casual fans who have tuned out of MMA since 2013?
Obviously, the UFC can’t put all the good stuff on free television because they make money on their PPVs. Still, that brings up another question. What “good stuff” do they have left to put on free TV that’ll draw what they were drawing on Spike?
Their stars are fading. Instead of creating new ones, they’re vomiting a stream of generic, EA sports create-a-fighters onto television screens across America. They’re expecting the casual fan to watch because it’s the UFC and the UFC is a good brand and they’re fights and fights are exciting. Everyone loves fights, right? It’s in our blood to love fighting. Or so the tired MMA-triumphalist rhetoric goes.
But it’s become apparent that that logic isn’t true. People aren’t tuning in for the novelty of “this UFC thing” anymore. They’ve moved on either because they’re waiting for Chuck Liddell’s or Kimbo Slice’s or Brock Lesnar’s next fight, or because the sport is too hard to follow, or because they never see it on TV because they don’t watch FS1, or because they see cards like UFC Fight Night 32 and just don’t care anymore.
This issue becomes even more complicated when you consider the question of overseas expansion. UFC Fight Night 32 was, obviously, a Brazil-centric card. The UFC is also eyeing expansion in many other countries. But is the UFC pursuing this goal because the US market is drying up, or is the US market drying up because of the UFC’s obsession with international growth?
The answer, for now, is elusive. When we see how the UFC closes out the year, we’ll know the bubble has burst if we see the UFC’s popularity in the US continue to wither.