Posted 08/31/2014 by Mike Fagan in Untethered MMA
 
 

UFC 177: TJ Dillashaw vs. Joe Soto Review

The UFC originally targeted the rematch between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson for UFC 177 in Sacramento. They announced the bout during contract negotiations with Jones in a bush-league move attempting to increase their leverage by turning public opinion against him. (“Jones won’t sign the deal! He’s scared of Gustafsson!”) Jones held out anyway, signed the deal, and got the fight moved back to UFC 178 in September.

UFC 177 wouldn’t get its main event until July 5 – just eight weeks out from the card – with TJ Dillashaw defending his newly won bantamweight title in a rematch with Renan Barao. Ten days later on July 15, the UFC announced Demetrious Johnson would defend his flyweight title against de facto challenger Chris Cariaso.

On August 12, 18 days before UFC 177, Jones pulled out of his fight at 178 with an injury, and the UFC moved Johnson’s flyweight tuneup into that card’s headlining spot. Tony Ferguson and Danny Castillo – a fight more suited for a Fox Sports 1 prelim – slid into 177′s co-main slot. A card that already looked like a barely-credible pay-per-view now hung its entire value on a bantamweight title rematch that few bought the first time around.

Then Barao pulled out. According to him and his camp, Barao passed out and hit his head against the wall as he stepped out of a bathtub prior to Friday’s weigh-in. With Barao out, the UFC turned to Joe Soto – originally scheduled to fight Anthony Birchak on the prelims – to step in against Dillashaw on 24-hours notice.

And that’s how Sacramento went from potentially hosting a rematch with the best fighter in the sport to actually hosting a glorified Fight Night with a $60 price tag.

SO IS THIS OVERSATURATION?

Over at MMA Fighting, Luke Thomas makes the case that the oversaturation argument is over:

There is no debate about over saturation any longer. Not simply about its existence, anyway. It’s real and there’s no room for argument about it.

Here is the fact: the UFC simply doesn’t have the roster, as enormous as it is, to meet their current business objectives. Global expansion, an aggressive schedule and injuries do not preclude the UFC from putting on a good show, but it does stop them from doing it consistently.

What has happened to UFC 177 and the product generally is not a function of injuries. … There were already groans about the card as the UFC had intended it.

What UFC 177 evidences is that a premium product cannot be grown at scale, at least not this quickly. International expansion is a viable idea, but on the current timeline? Does it really make sense to revive Japan, break into China, develop Singapore, crack South Korea, open up larger Latin America, convert Mexico, kickstart Germany, move into France, push Ireland and Sweden while concurrently maintaining an already busy schedule in the United States and Canada (FOX shows, Fox Sports 1 and 2 events, The Ultimate Fighter and more)? If it does, the evidence for it is not clear. It is certainly not without negative consequence.

Let’s take a look at those negative consequences.

The UFC is stretching themselves thin, there’s no doubt about that. The UFC looks like they’ll put on 46 shows in 2014. That’s up from 27 in 2011. The roster’s bloated in order to meet the supply demand, but that doesn’t change the fact that premium talent is, well, at a premium. The UFC’s struggled to replace main event, pay-per-view talent when necessary, which has resulted in two cancelled cards and cards like UFC 177, which will probably smash the record for fewest PPV buys in the post-The Ultimate Fighter era.

The expansion push also likely drags lower-tier PPV events down. Those cards lack premium talent at the top, and the supporting fights on the PPV that could help buoy the event are now often found headlining Fight Nights on Fox Sports 1 and Fight Pass. UFC 178; which the UFC seemed to be stacking to make up for UFC’s 174, 176, and 177; is what a bottom-heavy PPV card could look like if the UFC consolidated talent for major events.

Here’s a boxplot of UFC PPV buys:

 UFCPPVbox

Track 1 is the era between 2008 and 2011. Track 2 is 2012 through UFC 175 (estimating UFC 173 at 200,000, UFC 174 at 100,000, and UFC 175 at 550,000).

It’s a pretty steep drop off. There’s a big discrepancy in both mean and median PPV buys. The period between 2008 and 2011 saw mean PPV buys at 529,200 and median PPV buys at 495,000. The current era saw those numbers drop to 423,600 and 350,000, respectively. There’s a clear downshift in the meat of the numbers too. The interquartile range (the middle 50% of the data) for 2008 and 2011 sits between 323,800 and 627,500, whereas the current era sits between 230,000 to 550,000.

But 2008 through 2011 was a special time for the UFC. The old guard of Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, and Tito Ortiz were still hanging around. Georges St-Pierre emerged as a PPV star. Anderson Silva developed into a PPV star. The UFC and PRIDE talented pools (mostly) merged.

And then, of course, there was Brock Lesnar. Lesnar’s imprint on the sport cannot be overstated. Five UFC events have sold over a million PPVs. Lesnar headlined three of them. UFC 121 (Lesnar vs. Velasquez) sold 900,000. His debut at UFC 81 against a left-for-dead Frank Mir drew 600,000 with Tim Sylvia vs. “Minotauro” Nogueira on top.

* Sylvia actually had a decent run of headlining PPVs with strong undercard draws. UFC 59 sold 425,000 with Tito Ortiz and Forrest Griffin co-maining and UFC 61 sold 775,000 with Ortiz and Ken Shamrock. Sylvia’s best card without strong support was UFC 68 when he drew 540,000 with a returning Randy Couture. Suffice to say, Sylvia was no draw.

Track 3 represents that same 2008-2011 era, minus any event Lesnar appeared on. It’s a crude but simple way of reducing Lesnar’s effect on the sport. Without Lesnar, we still see a steep drop in the median (475,000 to 350,000), and the problem appears to come from the lower-tier events. The lower quartile has fallen by 80,000, and the bare minimum show has fallen from 215,000 to 100,000.

But the promotion can still sell top-end events. Only nine months ago, UFC 168 sold over a million PPV buys. They sold another 630,000 the month before that with Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks. Buys have been lackluster since (outside of UFC 175), but a lot has gone against the UFC: St-Pierre effectively retired, Anderson Silva went down with an injury, Cain Velasquez was hurt (and now coaching The Ultimate Fighter), Anthony Pettis was hurt (and now coaching The Ultimate Fighter), and Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier had to be pushed back.

When we talk about “oversaturation,” we usually talk about how there are too many shows for fans to keep up with. I don’t think that’s a problem. (I think those shows are differentiated improperly; i.e., PPVs often look like Fight Nights with bigger main events.) The UFC’s actual problems seems to stem from stretching themselves too thin, which is related to putting on so many shows. They’ve lost a lot of their ability to scramble when a card delves into chaos. They can alleviate that by cutting back on PPV events, from, say, 12 or 13 to 8 or 9. That reduces the demand for premium fighters and/or title fights, and prevents situations like UFC 151, UFC 176, and UFC 177.


Mike Fagan