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Lessons to be Learned From UFC’s Slow Start to 2018

February 5, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
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On January 27, the UFC presented its weakest offering on Fox to date. On February 24, they will return to the network with a card that challenges that distinction, and will probably draw the worst ratings in series history.

This weekend, UFC will charge $65 USD for UFC 221, the promotion’s worst pay-per-view offering in recent memory. Outside of the main event, the pay-per-view card is bankrupt of intriguing matchups and presents few recognizable names.

Next month, the UFC returns to pay-per-view with a card that has no main event as of this writing. Headliner and featherweight champion Max Holloway fell off the card with an injury on Saturday, leaving the card’s highest billed fight as Stefan Struve vs. Andre Arlovski, two heavyweights far removed from the title picture in a division that lacks depth. In terms of name value, the card doesn’t get much better below that.

The UFC is a promotion running a schedule that it cannot possibly hope to sustain while maintaining the high quality that helped it become the world’s leading MMA company.

This is not a new issue.

Last year, the UFC cancelled a planned January 21 pay-per-view date when they could not fill the main event.

The following month, they were forced to scramble and lower their standards to save their scheduled February 8, 2017, pay-per-view date from the same fate. Their solution? Take one popular female bantamweight, move her and another bantamweight up to a division that did not exist within the promotion, and have them fight over the championship of this facade of a division. To make it more laughable, Cris Cyborg, the unquestioned best fighter in the same division for nearly a decade, and UFC’s only real fighter in said division, sat on the sidelines.

It is no mystery why UFC chooses to keep running into these issues. Content is king, but quantity is significantly more important than quality. Since 2012, the UFC has been locked in a television agreement with Fox. The purpose of the agreement was not for UFC to deliver occasional loaded fight cards that would pop a big rating and sell out an arena, but rather to help launch Fox’s new sports channel and fill a high number of television hours with live content.

Even on pay-per-view, where fans have to decide whether a card is good enough for them to part with their money, the balance leans in favor of quantity. Even with a bad card that sells 100,000 pay-per-view units, the UFC still comes out ahead due when all of their revenue streams (live gate, sponsorship, international television rights, etc.) are tallied.

The UFC is incentivized to run too many shows on television and pay-per-view. As a result, the average UFC card is weaker than it has been at any point in the past twelve years.

But how can UFC improve average card quality and not adjust their schedule down? The only solutions implementable in the short-term are to avoid over-stacking shows—adding additional main event quality fights that don’t improve a card’s stability or drawing power—and hold on to star fights tempted to test the free agent market.

In November 2016, the UFC came to Madison Square Garden with three championship bouts in tow, along with several other bouts that could have been serviceable television card headliners. The following year, the UFC returned to the Garden and followed the same template with three championship bouts.

These two November nights in Madison Square Garden were among the most memorable in MMA history and were a bargain for fans watching on pay-per-view. However, both cards would have done just as well at the box office and on pay-per-view with two championship bouts, provided the main event remained the same at each event.

It comes as no surprise that after each of these over-stacked events came a period within the next three months wherein UFC struggled to find suitable pay-per-view main events.

In December 2016, the UFC had to create an interim title out thin air for Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis to fight over in a pay-per-view main event. Then they had to cancel the following month’s pay-per-view date, before scrambling to create another new championship in February.

The promotion couldn’t finalize a main event for their 2017 year-end event until six weeks before the show. They are now days removed from an exceptionally poor pay-per-view card, and are searching to find a suitable main event for a card a few weeks after that.

While over-stacked cards are excellent for fans, perhaps they aren’t best for a promotion with an overabundance of main events to fill. Removing just one inessential element from an over-stacked card and redistributing it can have ripple effects that improve organizational stability.

For example, take Cody Garbrandt vs. T.J. Dillashaw from UFC 217 in November and move it to UFC 219 the following month. UFC 217 would be no worse off, and UFC doesn’t have to reach to deep into their wallet to make Cris Cyborg vs. Holly Holm on the same show. Instead, Cyborg vs. Holm can move to UFC 221 or UFC 222, which lends significant muscle to either card. At the bottom line, UFC comes out ahead.

But still, there are additional events to fill on pay-per-view and television, which require additional stars to fill.

Over the past few years, Bellator MMA has signed several free agents from the UFC. Of those, Benson Henderson, Chael Sonnen, Frank Mir, Gegard Mousasi, Josh Koscheck, Josh Thomson, Matt Mitrione, Michael McDonald, Phil Davis, Quinton Jackson, Rory MacDonald, Roy Nelson, Ryan Bader, and Wanderlei Silva have headlined UFC events.

None of these additions to Bellator’s roster are major pay-per-view attractions at this stage, and losing any single one of them was not a big loss for the UFC. However, the sum of these mostly working parts adds up to a significant loss for the UFC.

Any UFC show coming up in the next couple of months is better off having Chael Sonnen vs. Quinton Jackson. Phil Davis and Ryan Bader are missed in a shallow light heavyweight division.

Among that group are television headliners, title contenders, and big names that up-and-coming fighters can fight in hopes of becoming a big name themselves. These are valuable commodities that slipped through UFC’s hands because the big picture escaped them as they dealt with individual contracts.

The UFC has consistently run into issues with card strength after promoting a deeply stacked events. This issue has been exacerbated by star fighters slowly trickling out of the promotion through free agency, which has helped weaken the average UFC card.

Until these issues are addressed, the UFC will continue to find themselves in the same predicaments of scrambling to patch together a pay-per-view main event and presenting televised events doomed for ratings failure.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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UFC, UFC 221, Dan Plunkett