According to Dave Meltzer’s latest pay-per-view buyrate column on MMAFighting.com, the first two UFC PPV events of 2014 didn’t exactly blow the doors down.
Let’s start with UFC 169: Barao vs. Faber 2 on February 1st, which featured two championship fights (including a featherweight title bout between Jose Aldo and Ricardo Lamas in the co-main event), and a solid heavyweight feature between Alistair Overeem and Frank Mir. That show took in just 230,000 buys, by Meltzer’s estimates — the lowest total for a UFC PPV since last summer, when UFC 161 and UFC 163 completely crapped the bed. It’s worth noting that the first time Urijah Faber and Renan Barao headlined a pay-per-view (UFC 149), it pulled in a nearly identical number. Maybe the California Kid isn’t quite the superstar we’ve made him out to be.
Holding an event on a weekend when so much attention was focused on the Super Bowl gives the UFC a convenient excuse as to why UFC 169 may have underperformed. But it still doesn’t bode well for the promotion’s ability to sell pay-per-views for events headlined by male fighters under 155 pounds. UFC 169 featured Renan Barao, Urijah Faber, Jose Aldo — the only absent sub-155 star was Dominick Cruz — and they still barely cleared the UFC Mendoza Line of 200k buys.
The good news (or bad news, depending on how you look at it) is that Ronda Rousey is a bigger draw completely on her own than Barao, Faber, and, Aldo put together. Meltzer reports that UFC 170: Rousey vs. McMann on February 22nd collected an estimated 340,000 pay-per-view buys, with a much weaker supporting card than UFC 169 had. (Two words: Durkin Cummins.) When you consider that Rousey also helped UFC 168 become the first million-selling pay-per-view since 2010, it’s undeniable that the women’s bantamweight champ has become an essential part of the UFC’s business.
Of course, 340k buys doesn’t sound like a huge number — and it isn’t, if you compare it to, say, 2009, when every single UFC pay-per-view did 350k buys or better. Or, if you compare it to Rousey’s first UFC headliner against Liz Carmouche in February 2013, which pulled 450k buys, driven by the novelty value of the UFC’s first women’s title fight. But UFC 170′s PPV performance is more impressive when you compare it to recent UFC title fights featuring guys who are allegedly stars in allegedly marquee divisions. UFC 164: Henderson vs. Pettis did 270k buys. UFC 165: Jones vs. Gustafsson did between 300k-325k buys, and UFC 166: Velasquez vs. Dos Santos 3 drew “in the same range or very sightly up.” Ronda Rousey edged them all out, and she did so against a opponent (Sara McMann) who was a virtual unknown to casual fans, who Rousey had no personal rivalry with, in a fight that was thrown together on less than two months’ notice. That’s kind of amazing, actually.
So, is Ronda Rousey the biggest star the UFC has ever had, as UFC president Dana White likes to say after huffing gas? Well, she could have a solid argument for being the biggest UFC star that the UFC has right now. Although it should be mentioned that UFC 170′s live gate of $1,558,870 fell well below expectations.
Lets be real: 2014 is going to be a rough one for the UFC, pay-per-view wise. Anthony Pettis and Cain Velasquez won’t return until the end of this year, and Johny Hendricks will most likely be out until the fall. Ronda Rousey literally has nobody to fight right now, and the male featherweight/bantamweight/flyweight divisions simply don’t draw. UFC 173 has a cool poster, but probably not blockbuster potential. Anderson Silva won’t return this year, and Georges St-Pierre’s return depends on the UFC overhauling its drug-testing policies, which ain’t gonna happen any time soon.
And so, 340k buys represents a new high-water mark, which only a small handful of UFC PPVs will be able to clear this year. Most likely, the buyrate trend will continue to drop as the UFC shifts its attention to small-scale international shows, while the burned-out North American fanbase is content to watch the UFC’s free FOX/FS1/FS2 events and skip the ones that cost $55 simply because there’s a belt on the line in the main event.
The next UFC pay-per-view is UFC 172: Jones vs. Teixeira on April 26th — a light-heavyweight title fight that will probably pull around 300k buys. That’s just the way it is, now.