In 2013, if UFC fans want to watch a live event from their favorite MMA promotion on television, but one isn’t on that day, they’ve only had to wait a few weeks at the absolute most. Each of the five completed months this year has had at least two UFC cards fall within their 28, 30 or 31 days. In April, fans were treated to a brand new UFC event literally every week of the month, and this August’s four events should provide a similar level of satisfaction for the sport’s most dedicated followers.

This is a far cry from just a few years ago, when fans often went months between cards. In 2003 and 2004, the promotion ran just five events each year. It managed to double that in 2005, the year of The Ultimate Fighter and the beginning of the company’s ascent into the mainstream, but still put on no cards in January, March, May, July, September and December of that year. The promotion nearly doubled the number of events yet again in 2006, putting on 18 cards, and continued to hover around the 18-20 range through 2009 as it continued to attract more fans and dig out its place in the sporting pantheon.

Beginning in 2010, though, the UFC began a campaign to increase its event offerings even further, airing 24 events that year and increasing yet again to 27 events in 2011. In 2012, the UFC outdid itself once more, putting on a total of 31 cards—nearly three per month. Although this rather rapid year-to-year increase in UFC events over the last decade has done plenty to grow the sport by bringing in new fans while also keeping existing customers loyal and interested, the organization began to experience a bit of a backlash in 2012 from critics who claimed the greater number of cards overall was degrading the quality of individual events.

At no time in 2012 was this argument heard louder than in early September, when the UFC announced the cancellation of a planned pay-per-view event just a few days before it was supposed to take place. As most fans know, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones was slated to face perennial contender Dan Henderson in the main event of UFC 151 on Sept. 1, 2012. On Aug. 23, UFC President Dana White announced that Henderson had withdrawn from the fight due to an injury. Unable to find a suitable replacement in time and without many other fights on the main card to compel fans to purchase it in the absence of the scrapped title contest, the company made the very difficult decision to cancel UFC 151 altogether.

In the wake of the historic turn of events, the UFC faced many questions about how its fighters train, the injuries they often face as part of this training and, apropos to this topic, whether the company should consider pumping the brakes on its event-increase initiative in order to be able to stack more cards with multiple fights that have a significant interest to fans. If there weren’t so many events in 2012, that logic states, UFC 151 would have likely had a co-main event that had more drawing power than Jake Ellenberger vs. Jay Hieron and the event could have been salvaged even after Henderson’s exit.

For his part, Dana White has roundly rejected the notion that his company is putting on too many events. For White, more events means the need for more fights, which means the need for more weight classes, which means more jobs for folks who want to ply their trade in the Octagon. UFC 151 was an unfortunate confluence of events, with multiple significant injuries befalling the card after it was too late to practically do anything about it. Perhaps in the promotion’s more free-wheeling days, it would have put Jones up against whichever light heavyweight spoke up first, but the company has grown to a point where it must consider the overall quality of the product it sells before trying to get the public to buy.

Despite White’s comments, however, it doesn’t appear the UFC is continuing its aggressive increase in events in 2013. Through Sept. 21, the UFC has scheduled 23 events so far, the same number scheduled through that date in 2012. In fact, if the promotion follows its current pace, it will end up putting on 32 total shows in 2013, just one more than in 2012. The question must be asked, then: Despite the UFC’s desire to continue to put out more content, has the company’s event schedule reached its critical mass? Put another way, is there a hard limit to the number of events the UFC can run in a calendar year before they become superfluous?

I love watching UFC cards as much as anyone, but in 2013 I will have spent almost half of my Saturday nights in front of the TV, taking in the company’s latest offering. I’m certainly not complaining, but a further increase in events would inherently mean sacrificing even more Saturday nights to the Octagon. In this way, MMA is unique from other sports in that its primary airtime is one of the two most significant social nights of a person’s week. NFL fans generally aren’t giving up much on Sunday afternoons when they watch football. NBA fans have games to watch every single day and therefore can pick and choose when they tune in. If an MMA fan wants to watch a live UFC event, its going to come at the cost of a night out with friends almost every single time, and while that’s usually alright for two or even three Saturdays a month, an increase in UFC events would also mean a greater Saturday sacrifice for fans.

Of course, with the UFC’s recently forged television partnership with the Fox family of networks, there will likely be a greater opportunity for the company to run events other than on Saturday nights. The promotion ran a number of successful cards during the workweek when it was partnered with Spike and could continue to do so as its Fox Sports 1 participation grows. I’m still pining for Sunday-afternoon MMA, especially after football season is over, but that’s likely a pipe dream for now. Unless the UFC is able to find time other than Saturday nights that attract a sizable fan base to its cards, however, the company might be ill-advised to put on too many more cards.

Sometimes, during a particularly entertaining fight, I’ll think to myself, “I can’t believe this is an actual sport that airs on television.” This isn’t a criticism of mixed martial arts as an athletic endeavor so much as a continued surprise that mixed martial arts is actually on television. Not only is it on television, it’s now on national network television multiple times a year. The company’s overall six-fold increase in events over the last decade speaks volumes about its popularity, and the UFC has done a wonderful job of continuing to give people more and more opportunities to get into its product.

Has the UFC reached its limit when it comes to the number of cards it can air in a calendar year? Probably not. The level of talent in MMA continues to grow, and fans can soon expect every one of the UFC’s divisions to contain the enormous level of talent currently present at lightweight and welterweight. As long as there are fights to be made, the UFC is going to make them. In the coming years, the promotion will just have to start getting a little creative on when it airs them.

Photo: Dana White (Fox Sports)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.