Lots going on this past weekend in Madison, Wis. First, there was our city’s annual Art Fair on the Square, which brings hundreds of artists from around the country to showcase their works on the streets surrounding Wisconsin’s Capitol Building. Then, there was La Fête de Marquette, a three-day festival with a French flavor held in one of Madison’s historic east side neighborhoods. Both of these special events supplemented the usual Saturday farmers’ market downtown, as well as the typically vibrant center-city happenings on a nice summer weekend.

Conspicuous in its absence from my weekend, however, was that two- or three-hour block of a Saturday evening that I’ve become very accustomed to reserving for beer-drinking and MMA watching. (Okay…I might or might not have still reserved this time for beer-drinking.) Thus far in 2014, the UFC has produced 24 fight cards. As of this writing, we’re in the 29th week of 2014, so you can probably do the math. One can hardly fault the UFC for taking a short time off after its doubleheader over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, particularly when there’s a Fight Night card happening on Wednesday. Still, despite the countless hours of MMA I’ve watched in the last 10 or so years, I still very much look forward to Saturday fight cards.

The UFC has certainly done its part to satiate my appetite for combat over the last few years. In 2004, the promotion produced just five live events, all of which were only available on pay-per-view (and four of which took place in Las Vegas). The next year, the company doubled its efforts, putting on 10 live shows, four of which were available on cable and one of which (the fabled finale of The Ultimate Fighter‘s inaugural season) is credited with helping introduce the UFC and MMA generally speaking to a new group of fans. Flash forward to 2013, when the UFC put on a whopping 33 fight cards, offering the majority on network or cable television and traveling far outside its Las Vegas home to entertain fight fans worldwide. This year, the UFC is slated to outdo itself once more, and before last week had a total of 43 events planned for 2014.

While the recent proliferation of UFC fight cards has given me plenty of excuses to stay on the couch this year, the company is likely beginning to learn that more events doesn’t necessarily equal better events, particularly when it comes to the resulting quality of the company’s pay-per-view cards. Unfortunately for the UFC, this lesson has brought with it some difficult consequences.

First, there was UFC 174. While I don’t disagree with headlining a pay-per-view card with a flyweight title fight, particularly when the 125-pound champion is one of the best fighters in any weight class, I’m very curious what the UFC expected in terms of a buyrate when the third fight on the card was Ryan Bader vs. Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante. This is, of course, not at all meant to disrespect either of these two talented light-heavyweight fighters, but if a pay-per-view card’s main event isn’t going to entice fans to throw down $50 on its own, the company should do a better job of supplementing the main event with at least two other fights that themselves have drawing power. UFC 174 didn’t even have one (no, not even Rory MacDonald vs. Tyron Woodley) and the buyrate has been rumored to be one of the UFC’s lowest in years.Exact figures have not been released by the UFC, which itself is quite telling.

The latest promotional sacrifice will cut even deeper. If UFC 174 was one of the company’s weaker offerings of late, at least it brought in some money. Last week, the UFC announced that its next scheduled pay-per-view event, UFC 176, was being “postponed” after an injury to headlining featherweight champion Jose Aldo rendered him unable to compete. Clever wording by the UFC doesn’t change the fact that the UFC 176 event has been scrapped, even if Aldo will again meet challenger Chad Mendes once both are medically cleared to compete. The unfortunate result is that the UFC will now see zero dollars from a night that, with the presence of Aldo and Mendes, would likely have generated a few hundred thousand dollars for the company.

There is no complex reasoning necessary to explain UFC 176’s cancellation. Plain and simple, Also/Mendes was the only fight on the pay-per-view card that would have even had a chance of drawing fans willing to pay to see the contest, and even then we might be talking about another UFC 174-level buyrate scenario. Sure, Aldo is one of the sport’s top talents, but he’s reached that point in his career where he’s dismantled nearly every viable featherweight challenger, including his once and future opponent Mendes, so the main draw of UFC 176 was going to be a rematch of a fight that was not close the first time around. If the UFC wanted to successfully market a pay-per-view event under these circumstances, it would have needed to bolster the rest of the main card with fights fans not only want to see, but are willing to pay for.

Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Gegard Mousasi were scheduled to face each other in the co-main event of UFC 176. Although there is no doubt that the two are a couple of the more accomplished middleweights in MMA, neither has been in the UFC long enough to establish himself as a marketable commodity, particularly amid the current crop of the promotion’s top stars (Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey, etc.), and neither has yet to score a win over a more well-known UFC middleweight to attract the spotlight more in his direction. This rematch will make for a tremendous Fight Night headliner on Sept. 5, but any attempt by the UFC to position this fight as a main event of a pay-per-view would have been met with abject disaster. With Aldo’s departure, then, it makes complete sense that the company just decided to do away with the event altogether.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the UFC has been caught with its proverbial pants down after one of its pay-per-view headliners is suddenly off the card. In 2012, a knee injury to Dan Henderson forced his removal from his UFC 151 light heavyweight title fight against champion Jon Jones just days before the bout was slated to take place. Jones opted against fighting an extremely late replacement, so the UFC was left with a choice: proceed with UFC 151: (Jake) Ellenberger vs. (Jay) Hieron or cancel an event for the first time in its history. The UFC opted for the latter, framing the choice not as a failure on the company’s part to schedule more than one attractive pay-per-view-quality fight on the card, but rather as a failure on Jones’s side to do whatever the UFC wanted him to do.

The company survived this debacle, but still doesn’t seem to have fully learned its lesson when it comes to putting together pay-per-view cards. The UFC got awfully lucky when Anderson Silva and Stephan Bonnar stepped in to fill the main-event spot at UFC 153 after two planned featherweight title fights (first, Aldo vs. Erik Koch and then Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar) were scrapped, otherwise the company would have been left with another very difficult decision to make. (The co-main event of UFC 153 was Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Dave Herman.) UFC 154 had Georges St-Pierre vs. Carlos Condit, but would the co-main event of Johny Hendricks vs. Martin Kampmann been a suitable main event if GSP/Condit had suddenly been canceled? The same could be said for UFC 155 (Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos main, Jim Miller vs. Joe Lauzon co-main), UFC 159 (Jones vs. Chael Sonnen main, Michael Bisping vs. Alan Belcher co-main), and a number of other UFC pay-per-view events. In general, though, the company has either lucked out by having its announced headliner proceed as planned or, to be completely fair, in some cases has put together a solid enough co-main event to warrant its promotion when an original headlining bout was scrapped (see: UFC 161).

This sort of thing wasn’t really a problem in the pre-UFC 100 days, when the company put on a fraction of the annual events it will in 2014. Sure, the roster was smaller too, but fewer events (and the fact that the majority were only available on pay-per-view) necessarily meant more cards that went deeper than just the main event. Since the UFC has expanded its footprint to include not only regular appearances on basic cable, but also multiple annual appearances on Fox, the promotion has been forced to dilute some of its pay-per-view offerings in order to preserve some of its big fights for free television. Further diluting the pool of potential pay-per-view pugilism is UFC Fight Pass, the company’s subscription-based digital channel, to which a handful of its events are now exclusive. The company has to make fans’ subscription fees worth their while, so fights that might have ended up as decent supporting-cast bouts on the main card of a pay-per-view event are now finding themselves instead in the main-event slot of a Fight Pass card (Bisping vs. Cung Le and Mark Hunt vs. Roy Nelson, to name two in the near-future).

It seems, then, that the UFC is at a crossroads. The company seems insistent on further expanding its television presence through more frequent events on Fox and Fox Sports 1 (the 43 planned events still leave room for more to be scheduled in November and December, which presently contain just two UFC events apiece, compared to at least four per month from May-September 2014), and has invested heavily in UFC Fight Pass, so cards exclusive to that platform (and the handful of attractive fights that will go with them) are not likely going anywhere soon. This year has not been a good one when it comes to pay-per-view buyrates, with the year’s four available events on the MMAPayout.com Blue Book (UFC 169-172) each getting less than 400,000 purchases, yet the company still plans to run 12 pay-per-view cards in 2014 (not including UFC 176) and, I presume, would prefer that those buyrate numbers do not remain in the rumored basement levels of UFC 174. Unless the UFC suddenly discovers a new, massive and dedicated group of fans very soon, the company simply will not be able to accomplish all of these things. In reality, then, it’s probably faced with making one of the following choices:

1. Maintain/increase the number of free events while reducing the number of pay-per view events.

Few people are more thrilled about the recent proliferation of MMA content on television than I am. When I first got into MMA, the majority of the UFC’s events were still only on pay-per-view. Today, the UFC has quadrupled the number of its events overall and, by necessity, places the majority of them on free television. This allows a lot of MMA fans to more carefully curate their combat calendars and only spend money on pay-per-view cards they deem worthy of their hard-earned dollars. The consequence is the downward buyrate trend we’re currently seeing for pay-per-view events themselves. In this context, it makes perfect sense why UFC 174 would be rumored to have such an abysmal buyrate, since MMA fans also got two free televised Fight Night cards in June. I’m certainly not of the mindset that the UFC’s event expansion means that the company should do away with pay-per-view cards altogether, but (unless you’re in one of the higher tax brackets) there’s a discernible difference between $0 and $50, so there should be a discernible difference between the UFC’s free events and those for which the UFC charges extra money to watch.

With this in mind, the UFC could consider reducing the number of pay-per-view events on its schedule by half while also re-focusing its free programming as its own attraction, rather than as a means of promoting the company’s monthly pay-per-view events. If configured correctly, this could be the best solution. Free events would have a bout either between two contenders or featuring at least one more well-known fighter as its main event and then other potentially exciting if not immediately consequential bouts filling out the undercards. This would save most of the sport’s most meaningful fights for pay-per-view, where the UFC could showcase two title fights on each of its, say, six yearly events while also supplementing them with other bouts between available contenders/known commodities. This would create a clear delineation between events, with free cards being explicitly meant to showcase up-and-coming fighters while pay-per-view events would be mainly reserved for title fights, title eliminators or other bouts which showcase a particularly popular fighter.

One downside here is potentially lower pay-per-revenue for the UFC, but this could be negated if it begins putting together the sorts of premium cards that are more likely to draw more buyers. I don’t have an MBA or anything, but I would presume that one event that draws 700,000 buys because it has two title fights and a No. 1 contender’s match is just as good for the UFC’s bottom line as two events that each draw 350,000 because they each had a single title fight on the card. Hell, I’d even be willing to pay maybe $10-20 more for each pay-per-view if they promised at least three or four immediately significant fights and only came once every two months.

The only other potential downside comes with the acknowledgement that the UFC’s free cards are “lesser” than its pay-per-view cards, but that’s how it should be anyway. Again, if I’m going to continue to spend a percentage of my income for the pleasure of watching a UFC card on pay-per-view, it had better be worth the money. Free cards should be attractive enough for people to want to watch, but there’s such a big difference between deciding to watch something for free and deciding to watch something and also pay $50 to do so.

But let’s say the UFC doesn’t want to do any of this. There’s another option out there that would not only allow the UFC to continue its current pay-per-view event schedule while also potentially boosting the reputation of one of the company’s products. Of course, I’m talking about…

2. Broadcast all of the UFC pay-per-view events on Fight Pass and institute a commensurate cost increase.

When the WWE announced the launch of its own subscription-based digital network late in 2013, I was on the fence. Then the company said that all of its pay-per-view events would stream live on the network and I was sold. Before the network, I was paying $50 each month to watch a night of violent ballet, which brought my annual WWE-related expenditures to around $500. With the network, and its $10 monthly fee, I now get all of those shows for $120 a year. For that and all of the rest of the archival content on the WWE Network, I’d gladly pay double, and I think the UFC should seriously consider a similar model for UFC Fight Pass.

Not only would such a move instantly increase the subscription rates for Fight Pass, it would provide a consistent revenue stream the company could rely upon regardless of how many other people tune in to a pay-per-view event through their cable or satellite provider. The UFC could probably get away with something like $20-30 per month with such a move, since that would still represent significant savings for those fans who currently get most of the company’s pay-per-view cards. What it would also do is free the UFC from the pressures of having to make its pay-per-view cards significantly different than its free cards. If the UFC already has a critical mass of fans who are ponying up the dollars each month for the full subscription anyway, it will likely be able to get away with having the occasional UFC 174-quality card without too many people complaining (since they’re getting the event for less than they would pay for it otherwise).

The downside with this plan is, like the first, the potential for less pay-per-view revenue. Using UFC 174 as an example once more, it’s likely that only the most hardcore of MMA fans actually threw down their money on June 14 to watch the card. One wonders, then, if the number of hypothetical Fight Pass subscribers (and their subscription fees) would even outpace the revenue the UFC saw from UFC 174, or if the UFC would stand to lose even more in a situation like that since most viewers would probably be subscribers anyway. That is, subscribers will watch UFC 174 regardless, because it’s available to them with their monthly fee. Many of these subscribers are the sorts of hardcore fans that would have paid $50 for UFC 174 on pay-per-view absent its availability on Fight Pass, so following this plan the UFC could be losing a percentage of their potential purchase price as a result of the lower subscription fee while also failing to make up the difference with non-subscriber purchases.

This is getting convoluted. The bottom line here is that the UFC would be taking a real risk placing its pay-per-view events on Fight Pass, because even with an increased subscription cost, it would have to be confident that enough new people would subscribe to Fight Pass because of the inclusion of pay-per-views to make up for the loss of raw pay-per-view revenue it would get from these potential subscribers otherwise. That is, the UFC has to be sure it’d make as much or more money from including pay-per-views on Fight Pass as it’s making keeping them separate.

Now, all of this assumes the UFC cares as much about pay-per-view income as it does about its other, newer revenue streams. If that’s not the case, then there’s always…

3. Do nothing. Stay the course.

You know…maybe the UFC just straight-up doesn’t care that its pay-per-view buyrates have gone south in 2014. It does, after all, have at least 30 other non-pay-per-view events being broadcast among Fox, Fox Sports 1 and Fight Pass, and one has to assume that the company is getting quite an attractive percentage of that network deal. This is revenue that simply was not available several years ago. Sure, the UFC had its deal with Spike for a number of years, but in those days it found itself being broadcast alongside the likes of Manswers or whatever the hell, rather than being mentioned in the same breath as NASCAR or the NFL and recouping the kind of money that only comes with being on network television. Perhaps, then, the UFC can simply afford to maintain the status quo, putting on monthly pay-per-view events of widely varying quality while siphoning some of its most attractive fights for free shows. Again, the addition of the Fox Sports money surely makes up for whatever has been lost in pay-per-view revenue, and the UFC has still been able to support some of its ostensibly big events with stacked cards (UFC 167, 168), so why fix what ain’t truly broken?

The downside here is that putting on pay-per-view cards of questionable value damages the UFC’s product as a whole. It’s one thing to have a free card featuring some fighters whose drawing power is in doubt, but when the UFC puts out a card like UFC 174 and tries to pass it off like any other pay-per-view event, it does real harm to the company’s ability to promote future fights. Obviously, UFC 175 didn’t need a ton of extra promotion since it featured two championship fights, but UFC 176 sort of smacked of the same false carnival barking we’ve seen all too many times before from company officials. Yes, the card was slated to feature a featherweight title fight, but nothing below that would have been enough to draw in your more casual MMA fans, despite the UFC’s assertions. Sure enough, the main event is postponed, and with it the entire event is scrapped. This move again injures the UFC’s pay-per-view promotional credibility, since it ostensibly sought to attract fans to the entire card, only to dump it when the only fight people would really pay to see is suddenly left out.

Within the next year, we’re going to see which of the three options the UFC chooses, because it has to do one of them. Either the promotion reduces the number of pay-per-view events in an effort to consolidate more big fights onto fewer big cards, include the pay-per-views with the Fight Pass subscription to maintain the same number of cards while assuaging hardcore fans with a lower price point for big events, or do nothing and continue to watch its pay-per-view numbers drop. Sooner than that, though, we might get an indication of how the UFC intends to combat its current problem of thin pay-per-view cards.

The next UFC pay-per-view event is UFC 177, taking place Aug. 30 in Sacramento. The card is currently headlined by a bantamweight title fight between champion T.J. Dillashaw and Renan Barao, who Dillashaw dethroned in May to earn his belt. While this fight does bring with it some intrigue (specifically, that Dillashaw so convincingly thrashed the previously dominant Barao in their first fight), it’s by no means the sort of blockbuster that Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson 2, for example, is slated to be. With that in mind, and the fact that the current lineup after the bantamweight title fight is looking extremely questionable as of this writing, the UFC could do itself a solid by booking an equally attractive co-main event fight for the card, if it’s not already too late.

Instead, the following fights will take place on free cards between now and Aug. 30: Donald Cerrone vs. Jim Miller (UFN 45), Robbie Lawler vs. Matt Brown (UFC on Fox 12), Michael Bisping vs. Cung Le and Tyron Woodley vs. Dong Hyun Kim (UFN 48), Benson Henderson vs. Rafael dos Anjos (UFN 49). Again, I understand the need to have attractive fights as part of free cards, but these are all fights that would do a damn sight better at attracting pay-per-view buyers than Bethe Correia vs. Shayna Baszler or Tony Ferguson vs. Danny Castillo. What’s more, if the UFC’s goal with exciting free shows is to attract fans to its pay-per-view events, what will it say about those shows if a new fan sees a free event, is inspired to spend his money on the next pay-per-view and then sees something akin to UFC 174? The UFC is going to have a mighty difficult time extracting any more pay-per-view money from that fan again.

UFC 176’s cancellation is not an isolated event. Rather, it’s connected in a very important way to the changing landscape of MMA on television. Before the UFC was doing 30 shows a year for free, it could definitely have reserved its most popular fighters for its biggest (that is, pay-per-view) events, but because the company now desires to have these free events seem just as important as pay-per-view events, we’re seeing more and more pay-per-view-quality fights instead ending up on free television. This is good for fans in that it allows us to see more of the sport’s best fighters without paying quite as much money, but then when the monthly pay-per-view comes around and there’s really only one purchase-worthy fight on the card, it forces fans to decide whether that one fight is worth the money or if they can just wait a week until the next free event (which will also likely feature at least one marketable contest). More and more, we’re seeing fans make the latter decision, not only due to the number of free fights on television, but also because those free fights are coming at the expense of the quality of pay-per-view cards.

UFC 177 will be an interesting benchmark in this way, because there’s still probably just enough time for the UFC to add a fight of equal marketability to Dillashaw/Barao 2. It could opt to move one of the upcoming free fights to the UFC 177 pay-per-view card (doubtful) or it could simply put together another bout between two currently unoccupied fighters (more likely, but still doubtful). And then there’s the real possibility that nothing happens and the company tries to sell us UFC 177 as-is. Both UFC 174 and UFC 176 were marketed in similar fashions (one title fight, a bunch of other stuff), and we saw how both of those turned out.

Here’s hoping the UFC elects to be proactive with its UFC 177 fight card, and that it’s learned by now that no matter how hard you try, you can’t polish a turd.

**UPDATE – July 15, 6:30 p.m. central time**

It looks like the UFC will need to do slightly less turd-polishing for UFC 177 than I originally suspected, as it has just announced the addition of a flyweight title fight between champion Demetrious Johnson and challenger Chris Cariaso to the pay-per-view card.