The Business of MMA: What’s Really on the Line at UFC 229

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The UFC is banking on big numbers from UFC 229 to validate their profit model and give a much-needed boost to revenue this year.

The past year and a half has been something of a trial by fire for the UFC. After selling the company for a record $4 billion and holding four out of its top five highest selling pay-per-view events of all time in 2016, the king of MMA promotions had to sit back and watch as buy rates, television ratings, and revenue declined while their beloved princess took a foray into professional wrestling and their crown prince tried his hand at boxing.

Though the organization gave a valiant effort in finding the next heir-apparent to the throne of superstardom, courting such suitors as Cody Garbrandt, Francis Ngannou, and Darren Till, ultimately none of them could pull the proverbial sword from the drawing power stone and reach the levels of popularity set by the company’s two biggest stars.

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But on October 6, none of that matters—the UFC’s prodigal son comes home.

UFC 229

In an announcement that included video footage of a crime and a Nate Diaz tantrum, the MMA giant declared Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor for the lightweight championship as the headliner for UFC 229 to the rejoice of fans and WME-IMG shareholders alike.

“I am confident it will do 2 million on pay-per-view.” UFC President Dana White said, optimistic the bout would break all previous UFC pay-per-view records. In fact, to White, the UFC, and dozens of MMA media members that number isn’t optimistic in the slightest—they believe 2 million buys would be on the lower end of the spectrum for the return of McGregor in is his quest to reclaim gold. White even insinuated the card could reach around 3 million buys, noting the event was “trending as big as anything [the UFC] has ever done.”

And why not? Between the clash of styles, the drama surrounding the events at UFC 223 in Brooklyn, and the legions of fans both superstars have, everything seems to fit the company’s equation for success to the letter. How could it not live up to expectations? How could it be anything less than the UFC’s pay-per-view equivalent of a magnum opus?

But while the faithful laud the matchup and the legacy it will leave on combat sports, others are focused elsewhere. Underneath the fanfare and excitement for the most anticipated MMA fight of the year, the skeptical money men ponder a simple question, one that floats through the mind much like the thought of a studio who is about to finance the next Ronda Rousey movie…

What if it doesn’t sell that well?

Ambitious Projections

Make no mistake, UFC 229 will undoubtedly be a huge draw for the MMA organization and, barring a McGregor pullout, should easily clear over a million buys. But assuming it will break the all-time UFC pay-per-view record by 400,000 units? That may be a bit much, especially considering the lack of promotion less than 3 weeks out from the event.

Indeed, UFC 229 (and UFC 230 to a lesser degree) will be a crucial event for the UFC’s profit model. Not only will it serve as a barometer for the current popularity of mixed martial arts, but it will also test the assumption that with the right person headlining a card, the pay-per-view format and its ever-increasing price tag are what is financially best for the sport.

This fact is not lost on the UFC, as they’ve gone all-in on the current system they’ve created.  Whether it’s the marketing of title challengers as world beaters with little regard to current champions, matchmaking that dismisses meritocracy in favor of perceived money matchups, or the creation and removal of various interim titles in order to justify an event being pay-per-view, the leading MMA promotion has and made it abundantly clear that they value one thing above all else: profit.

But in the past year, that philosophy has shown questionable results at best.

According to the latest estimates, the UFC has yet to produce a pay-per-view show in 2018 that has broken the 400,000 buys mark. Despite stacked cards including a fight of the year candidate between Yoel Romero and Robert Whittaker in June, and a champion vs champion superfight with Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic during the flagship International Fight Week event in July, numbers have been mediocre.

Trying Times

More concerning, however, is the fact that television ratings have hit record lows for UFC events on Fox. The now historic low belongs to UFC on Fox 29 which came in at a 1.04 rating, an 18% decrease from the show that aired in the same timeslot last year and a 41% decrease from the show two years ago. UFC on Fox 29 was headlined by Eddie Alvarez vs. Dustin Poirier in a feud that had plenty of drama to go around, and on paper should have easily beaten the previous year’s numbers. Instead, it was outperformed by reruns on most of the major television networks.

These indicators paint a concerning picture for the business and its new owners. While events are still highly profitable, if the numbers keep falling eventually they won’t be—and that would spell disaster for everyone involved.

So, what happens if UFC 229 fails to break 2 million buys? What if the self-proclaimed greatest MMA fight of all time sells less than the previous record holder of UFC 202, under 1.65 million buys?

In the short term, nothing at all. After signing a 5-year broadcasting rights deal with ESPN worth $1.5 billion, the UFC has guaranteed income that should keep it financially secure until 2023. That should give the company plenty of time to build new fans utilizing the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports as its platform.

But in the long term, an underwhelming buy rate would be a signal to the promotion that their strategy needs to change. The UFC’s shift in priorities over the past few years has received heavy criticism from fighters and pundits that feel the organization is becoming less of a sport and more of a sports entertainment entity, and a lackluster showing for what should be the company’s biggest event in history could point to a rejection of that shift by the fans. Another factor to take into consideration is that while the UFC’s pay-per-view price has risen to $64.99 in the US, it has never been easier to illegally stream events on the internet, allowing the less scrupulous fans an avenue to watch the card without paying a cent.

Ultimately, as long as McGregor and Nurmagomedov both make it to the cage on fight night, UFC 229 will be a win for MMA fans regardless of what the numbers come out to be. But rest assured that for the UFC and their financial backers, there is more at stake than who ends up holding the lightweight strap come October 6.

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Patrick is a consultant turned journalist who loves the fight game and everything to do with it. Focusing on the politics, business, and general state of MMA are his mainstays, though he'll dabble in analysis and best bets when he can. He also enjoys football, basketball, baseball, and great jokes in general so feel free to reach out and berate him on social media whenever you disagree with him.

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