In the last edition of Behind the Numbers, I looked at how the UFC has fared so far in 2011 in attracting fans.  To sum it up, not well.  The UFC is down in every measurable way.  The UFC has only had 3.93 million pay-per-view buys through their first 10 events. When compared to 2010 (9.25 million buys) and 2009 (7.175 million buys), it is clear this has been a down year so far.  However, 2011 is not over.

There are still over three months and six pay-per-view events to go.  I am going to look ahead at what is coming in the last third of the year for the UFC and estimate how many buys the UFC should expect for each event to determine where the UFC will end up for the year.

UFC 135: Jones vs. Rampage

Jon Jones (Tracy Lee/Combat Lifestyle)

The next time the UFC hits pay-per-view, it will feature the recently crowned light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones facing former champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson on Sept. 24.  While this card is the one happening next, it is also the toughest one to predict.

Jones has headlined numerous events on free television in an effort to build him into a star, but he has only headlined one pay-per-view event.  UFC 128 drew 450,000 buys, but it is difficult to say if fans were tuning in to see Jones or his opponent, “Shogun” Rua.  UFC 128 was actually down from the last two events headlined by Rua (UFC 104 drew 500,000 buys and UFC 113 drew 525,000).  Another factor that is difficult to measure is the hype factor. Since Jones won the title, his stock on message boards has soared.  While fans on message boards have hyped Jones, it is impossible to tell if this hype has spread to the casual fans who ultimately drive pay-per-view sales.

Adding to the difficulty of predicting a buy rate for this event is fans’ declining interest in Rampage.  He drew over a million pay-per-view buys for UFC 114 against Evans.  By UFC 123, he only drew 500,000 fans when he faced Machida and then was down to 325,000 buys this past May when he faced Hamill.

Prediction: In the end, I think the Jones hype will push this pay-per-view up slightly from his last outing to 500,000 buys.

UFC 136: Edgar vs. Maynard III

While UFC 135 is relying on the star power of the main event fighters, UFC 136 is counting on the attraction of two title fights.  The main event is the third meeting of lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and top contender Gray Maynard.  The co-main event features

Frankie Edgar (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

featherweight champion Jose Aldo facing fan-favorite Kenny Florian.

Edgar vs. Maynard II only drew 275,000 buys, but that is not surprising.  Traditionally, lightweight fights have not drawn well on pay-per-view as a main event.  Even BJ Penn, the biggest name in the lightweight division, was often placed on cards with other draws.  It is unfortunate for the UFC that this fight could not have happened in May when the hype from their first fight was still high, but by this point many casual fans will have forgotten about the excitement they heard about back in January.

The featherweight division is new for the UFC this year, so it also lacks in star power.  Aldo was the lone star of the division and is getting a lot of praise on message boards and media sites, but his fight at UFC 129 failed to live up to the hype.  Florian injects a name fans will be familiar with, but he has not proven to be a pay-per-view draw.

UFC 136 is in a tough spot.  It is sandwiched between two pay-per-view events with bigger draws in the main events.  In addition, there are two free UFC events on cable television in the month before UFC 136, with the free event the week before 136 featuring a bantamweight title fight.

Prediction: UFC 136 has too many strikes against it to make a big showing.  I estimate the event will do in the 275,000 buys range.

UFC 137: St. Pierre vs. Condit

Georges St-Pierre (l) (Tracy Lee/Combat Lifestyle)

UFC 137 has received a huge amount of press the past couple of weeks, overshadowing events happening before it.  There was a switch in the participants of the main event and co-main event.  Former Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz was scheduled to face off with UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.  However, Diaz missed several press conferences and the UFC replaced him in the main event with Carlos Condit.  A day later, Diaz replaced Condit to face BJ Penn in the co-main event.  With the press coverage of the changes, the event sold out in no time.

In recent years, St-Pierre is pretty much a guarantee to get at least 750,000 pay-per-view buys.  You have to go all the way back to UFC 83 to find a fight that he headlined that did not reach at least this level.  While Penn has not found the same level of success as a headliner for pay-per-views, he has become a popular co-main event draw.

Prediction: UFC 137 will be the second event of the year to reach over 800,000 buys.  I estimate it will reach 850,000 and may stretch to even 900,000 buys if this event stays in the press.

UFC 138 is free on cable television in the US.

UFC 139: Belfort vs. Le

UFC 139 should be called “The Forgotten Card.”  The event was originally going to feature the heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos.  However, when the UFC struck a television deal with Fox, that fight was moved up a week to be

Cung Le (r) battles Scott Smith (Esther Lin/Strikeforce)

featured on the first Fox broadcast.  Injuries and previous bookings have limited options for the main event, leaving this card to be currently headlined by Vitor Belfort facing off with the latest Strikeforce transfer Cung Le.

Belfort was most recently scheduled as the third fight on UFC 133 until an injury moved him up to the co-main event.  Le has even less hope of being a strong draw for pay-per-view, but was added to the card to help sell out the live event.  Le last competed over a year ago on the Fedor vs. Werdum card.  He last headlined a card nearly two years prior to the UFC 139.  “Strikeforce: Evolution” only drew 330,000 viewers on Showtime.  On the positive side, Le does train in the San Jose area and will be a strong draw for locals to help sell out the arena.

UFC 139 also faces a challenge with UFC 138 and the Fox show both being free before it in the month and the TUF Finale being free in early in December.  Also, hype and excitement may be beginning for UFC 141.

Prediction:  UFC 139 has the potential to have the lowest pay-per-view buys in years.  UFC 72 was the last time the UFC has had a pay-per-view event only reach 200,000 buys.  While this event definitely has the opportunity to drop below that level, I think it will do just slightly better than that based on the UFC brand name alone, but not by much.  I would estimate 215,000 pay-per-view buys.

UFC 140: Nogueira vs. Mir II

UFC 140 marks the UFC’s return to Toronto.  Last time in town, they sold over 55,000 tickets. However, this time they are booked

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Tracy Lee/Combat Lifestyle)

into a more traditionally-sized MMA arena.  The event is being headlined by two former UFC heavyweight champions.  Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is the former Pride FC heavyweight champion, as well as the former UFC heavyweight champion.  He is a legend among hardcore fans. Frank Mir is also a multiple-time former heavyweight champion.  The two coached TUF opposite each other before their first meeting.

The co-main event on this card will also help to draw in casual viewers.  Tito Ortiz will face off with Rodrigo’s twin brother, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.  While the smaller Nogueira is not as popular as his brother, Tito Ortiz still draws in casual fans on some level.

There are some unknowns around this event that could affect the buy rate.   Will the UFC use Fox to promote this heavyweight fight?  Will hype for UFC 141 overshadow this event?

Prediction: UFC 140 is looking to be a completely average event.  I predict it will draw in close to average in pay-per-view buys.  I estimate around 335,000 buys for this event.

UFC 141: Lesnar vs. Overeem

Brock Lesnar (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

UFC 141 features the return of Brock Lesnar.  Lesnar has been out of action all this year

with an intestinal problem that has required surgery.  But he is without a doubt the king of pay-per-view buys.  The UFC has had five events reach over 1 million buys since UFC 100.  Lesnar headlined four of those events.

His opponent, Alistair Overeem, is a newcomer to the UFC.  However, Overeem is the last Strikeforce and Dream heavyweight champion, as well as the last K-1 Grand Prix champion.  His impressive size and credentials make him an easy sell for the UFC marketing machine.

The event is not without a couple of question marks.  Lesnar lost in his last appearance in the Octagon.  Will that have any effect on the casual fans interest in him?  The event is also a rare Friday pay-per-view and it will be interesting to see if this has any impact on the buy rate.

Prediction:  Lesnar is the closest thing for a lock to get 1 million buys.  The UFC will leverage Fox in their marketing to ensure this event is a success.  I will be a little conservative and predict only 1 million buys, but it could crawl as high as 1.1 million buys.

Conclusion

Through August, the UFC only had 3.93 million buys in 2011.  I am predicting by the end of the year the UFC will have 7.105 million pay-per-view buys, which is an average of over 440,000 buys per event.  While this is a little bit of a rebound at the end of the year, it is not enough to avoid a three-year low in buy rates.   Is this the end of the rapid rise of MMA?  It is tough to say.  Fox could bring in more fans and the sport easily could rebound next year.  But it a significant drop this year.  It is a trend that needs to be watched as it is one indicator of both fan interest and the health of the sport.

Top Photo: The UFC Octagon (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)