In August, I raised the red flag about slumping UFC pay-per-view numbers.  At the time, the end of the year looked to be a little brighter.  The UFC had just signed a deal with Fox. The promotion was planning its first event for November and it was impossible to determine how that may impact the organization.

In addition, it was expected two of the biggest pay-per-views of the year were still yet to come.   However, Georges St-Pierre’s injury hurt sales for UFC 137 and Brock Lesnar’s return to the Octagon became the first event he participated in since UFC 87 that did not reach a million PPV buys.

No matter how you slice it, 2011 was a down year for the UFC.  However, a drop wasn’t necessarily unexpected.  Every year since 2005, the numbers have improved, with 2010 becoming a record-breaking year for UFC in PPV buys, average buys per PPV, live attendance, average attendance per event and live gate.  The trajectory wasn’t sustainable indefinitely, so a step back would have been expected.  But it is a little surprising just how far the numbers dropped.

How bad was it?

Pay-per-view buys are still the lifeblood of the UFC.  In 2011, the total PPV buys for the year are estimated at 6,815,000, the lowest since 2008.  However, in 2008, there were only 12 PPV events, but in 2011 there were 16.  If you look at the average buys per PPV, 2011 was the worst year since The Ultimate Fighter reality series was launched in 2005.

Last year marked the first time since 2007 that there was not a single event that sold over a million PPV buys.   It also marked the first time since 2005 where only three events exceeded 500,000 buys throughout the year.

PPV Buys Per Year Comparison:

2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Overall buys 4.9 million 6.385 million 8.05 million 9.185 million 6.815 million
Avg. buys per event 448,636 532,083 619,231 612,333 425,938
# of events over 500,000 buys 4 6 7 11 3
# of events over 1 million buys 2 1 1 3 0

 

While it is easy to spot the lack of high numbers, it is the low-end numbers that are more concerning.  The UFC’s brand in the past had been able to deliver a certain level of buys even without star power being on the card.  It appears the amount of viewers the brand is now bringing in is lower than in the past.  In 2011, five events did fewer than 300,000 buys.  The UFC has never had more than three events draw fewer than 300,000 viewers since the creation of TUF.  The event with the lowest PPV buys in 2011 was UFC 136 with an estimated 225,000 buys.  The last time an event only had 225,000 buys was in 2008.  Making the low number even more surprising was that 136 featured two title fights.

While PPV numbers were down, at first glance live attendance, average attendance per event, and live gate all set records this year.  However, all of this gain can be attributed to one event.  UFC 129 is the only stadium event the UFC has ever held and that event by itself drew more than $12 million in live gate and 55,724 attendees, more than three times more than any other event in the year and more than two and a half times the live attendance for any other UFC event in history.  If we remove this statistical outlier, the news is much more sobering.  Total attendance and live gate for 2011 fall in just below 2010’s record-breaking numbers, but average attendance fell to the lowest level since 2007 and the live gate per event was the lowest since 2005.

Looking at these numbers, I can almost hear certain fans screaming it is the end of the UFC, MMA is just a niche sport, or some other nonsense.  While there is no denying 2011 was a down year, it is important to remember that all businesses face up and down years.  This is just the first down year the UFC has faced since creating The Ultimate Fighter.  The UFC’s relationship with Fox has the potential to take it to new heights, but without a doubt, along the way there will be other bumps in the road.

Photo: Randy Couture on his way to the Octagon at UFC 129, the event that put the UFC over the top in breaking a number of its annual attendance records (Al Bello/Zuffa LLC)

About The Author

Richard Wilcoxon
Staff Writer

An East Coast native, Richard Wilcoxon grew up a die hard fan of traditional team sports. In the early 1990's, he stumbled onto the sport of MMA and has been hooked ever since. He started writing about the sport on his Sporting News member blog in 2005 where he worked to spread his passion for the sport. He eventually became an official staff writer for Sporting News' "The Rumble" MMA/boxing blog before joining The MMA Corner.