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The UFC and Bellator Year in Review

December 27, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
UFC 214 - Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier

As we inch toward the end of another wild year, let’s take a look back at the year for two biggest MMA promotions: the UFC and Bellator MMA.

UFC

It was never going to be a strong year for the UFC. By January, we knew that Conor McGregor wouldn’t fight until August at the earliest, Ronda Rousey was probably done, and Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar wouldn’t be eligible to compete until July at the earliest. As the months passed, McGregor attached himself to a boxing super-fight that made an MMA return unlikely before the end of the calendar year. Rousey remained silent regarding her future, while Lesnar formally retired with about five months remaining on his suspension. Jones returned in July and appeared to make himself a bigger star than ever before, but another drug test failure sent him back to the sidelines, perhaps for a few years this time around.

The result of the unavailability of four key stars was a steep decline in UFC’s pay-per-view sales in the first eleven months of the year. In twelve pay-per-view cards from January through November of 2016, the UFC totaled an estimated 7.2 million buys (600,000 buy average), which included three of the top five shows in company history (all headlined by McGregor). In ten pay-per-view cards from the same period this year, the company totaled an estimated 3.445 million pay-per-view buys (344,500 buy average). The decreased number of pay-per-view events in 2017 comes from two cancelled shows: one slated for January that UFC was unable to find a suitable main event for, and one in August that was cancelled due to the Mayweather vs. McGregor fight taking place the same month.

The two things that bolstered the year were the returns of Jon Jones (although it was only a brief return) and Georges St-Pierre. Jones’s UFC 214 clash with rival Daniel Cormier drew an estimated 860,000 buys, while St-Pierre’s return at UFC 217 topped that with an estimated 875,000 buys. Without those two shows, the UFC’s event average for 2017 falls sharply to 214,000 buys.

Despite a down year on pay-per-view and television, 2017 may have been UFC’s most profitable year ever. A slew of layoffs toward the end of 2016 were the most notable cost-cutting measures, and when combined with escalators in UFC’s TV rights fee deal with Fox, along with income from the extremely successful Mayweather vs. McGregor boxing match, it was a strong year for UFC’s bottom line.

On the sporting side, the UFC had multiple notable happenings. Perhaps the most historically notable bout of the year came in July with the Cormier vs. Jones rematch, a battle of the two best light heavyweights in MMA history. When Jones won, the popular topic of discussion was his place at the top of the all-time greats list. However, when news of his pre-fight drug test failure emerged in August, that talk died down.

Demetrious Johnson and Georges St-Pierre also pleaded their respective cases for being the greatest of all-time. Johnson secured two dominant wins and set a new UFC record with eleven consecutive title defenses. But as talented as Johnson is, he reigns over a division that is considered weak, and many of his opponents posed no significant threat to him. For that reason, he will likely need to beat at least one established elite competitor to gain major support as the all-time greatest. A proposed match with T.J. Dillashaw in 2018 may be the one to do it.

St-Pierre returned from a four-year layoff to beat Michael Bisping for the middleweight championship, which he subsequently vacated one month later. Although Bisping was not a strong champion, considering the circumstances of the victory (a long absence that included a major knee injury, aging, and moving up in weight) it may have been the most impressive feat of St-Pierre’s storied career.

Bellator MMA

Bellator appeared primed for a big 2017, but things didn’t pan out as expected. They started strong, with their first event of the year averaging 1.374 million viewers, higher than any UFC live event on Fox Sports 1 to this point in the year. With a cast of proven attractions (Chael Sonnen, Fedor Emelianenko, Wanderlei Silva, Quinton Jackson), I expected that show to be the first of a few Bellator shows to average more than one million viewers in 2017. It turned out to be the only Bellator show of the year to beat one million viewers.

The promotion drew solid numbers early in the year (807,000 viewers for Josh Thomson vs. Patricky Freire; 907,000 viewers for Quinton Jackson vs. Mo Lawal), but saw major declines in the second half. From July through the end of the year, Bellator didn’t have a single show that averaged at least 600,000 viewers in live and same day viewing. Multiple shows drew fewer than 500,000 viewers, including Bellator 190, which drew the promotion’s worst number ever for a first-run event on Spike with 394,000 viewers.

Some of those low numbers are due to an increased number of overseas events, which do not receive the same level of media coverage in the United States as domestic events. However, the major reason is that Bellator simply doesn’t have enough compelling main event fights to the TV audience to fill twenty-two shows in a year.

The most notable event of the year for Bellator took place on June 24, when the company ran a pay-per-view from Madison Square Garden. It was an attempt to see if the aging stars they had used to draw strong television numbers could still draw when fans had to pay to see the fights. Success would have given them to the funds and a strong reason to go after big free agents.

Bellator stacked the deck for the show, with Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva, Fedor Emelianenko vs. Matt Mitrione, and three title fights. It drew a strong gate at the very expensive-to-rent Garden, but pay-per-view sales were far from great. The show was estimated in the wide range of 90,000 to 130,000 buys. The lower side of that estimate would be a bad number, while the higher side of the estimate is on the lower end of okay.

After the show, Bellator officials stated there would be additional pay-per-view events in the future when the time was right. To this point, there has been no public talk of when the next pay-per-view will come, but it stands to reason that it may involve the semi-finals or finals of the planned heavyweight tournament in 2018.

In addition to their foray into pay-per-view, other notable happenings in Bellator included the performance of their free agent signings, as well as the performance of their highly-touted prospects.

Former UFC stars Chael Sonnen, Josh Koscheck, Rory MacDonald, Ryan Bader, Roy Nelson, and Gegard Mousasi all debuted with the promotion this year. Sonnen is well past his fighting prime, but he was brought in to draw. He drew well on television for a loss to Tito Ortiz, and he was the main event of Bellator’s pay-per-view, winning a decision against Wanderlei Silva. Koscheck was in a similar spot, being brought in for a grudge match with Paul Daley rather than any hope he could return to form. After injuries delayed his debut, he was knocked out by Mauricio Alonso in February and has not returned since.

Rory MacDonald, Ryan Bader, and Gegard Mousasi faced high expectations when coming over to Bellator. MacDonald looked impressive in his debut against Paul Daley, while Bader captured the Bellator light heavyweight title in his first fight with the company. Mousasi was expected to take over Bellator’s weak middleweight division, but he just barely made it past the tough Alexander Shlemenko in his October debut.

Nelson added strength to Bellator’s heavyweight division, and edged past Javy Ayala in his debut. Along with Sonnen and Bader, he will compete in Bellator’s heavyweight tournament next year.

Under the Coker regime, one of the key targets for Bellator has been to identify and sign promising talent, even if they have no fights under their belt. It was the same concept that led Coker to sign Daniel Cormier to an eight-fight deal in Strikeforce in 2009 before he had competed in his first fight. Had Strikeforce not sold to Zuffa in 2011 and closed shop in 2013, Cormier likely would have been one of the promotion’s key stars for years.

It is under this program that Bellator signed blue chip prospects Aaron Pico, Ed Ruth, Logan Storley, Tyrell Fortune came to the promotion. The 21-year-old Pico was propelled by massive hype into his debut fight in June, which he lost in twenty-four seconds. However, he rebounded with a knockout victory a few months later and he still has all the potential in the world.

To date, Ruth, Storley, and Fortune have yet to taste defeat. All could do big things.


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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