Another record year for UFC on PPV

Boxers Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao produced the two biggest individual pay-per-view events of 2010. But with Brock Lesnar as the biggest overall draw, Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, had its third consecutive record-setting year as the dominant force on the North American pay-per-view scene.

Zuffa is estimated by industry sources as doing 9,145,000 buys and generating $411 million in gross pay-per-view revenue on 16 events in 2010, including five that topped 750,000 buys. Those would consist of 15 events under the UFC banner and the lone World Extreme Cagefighting pay-per-view in April.

Lesnar fought twice over the past year, doing an estimated 2,100,000 buys combined for his main events against Shane Carwin on July 3 and his title loss to Cain Velasquez on October 23. In doing so, he became the second man in history to have two shows top 1 million buys in the same calendar year. The only other person to do so was Mike Tyson, who had three one million buy shows in 1996, in fights with Evander Holyfield, Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon.

Brock Lesnar lost the UFC heavyweight title to Cain Velasquez, but he remains the top drawing card on pay-per-view television.
(Getty Images)

To show how impressive Lesnar’s totals were, his former employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, which had been the kings of monthly pay-per-views through 2005, only tallied 1,941,000 North American buys on its first 12 events of the year, with figures not yet reported for a December show. Based on recent numbers, that show would likely fall between 90,000-110,000. The wrestling company showed a steep decline from three million North American buys in 2008 and 2,593,000 in 2009.

WWE, while declining in its home base, managed to stay strong overall because they are at the head of the pack when it comes to international business. The company in recent months has ranged between 40-50 percent of its pay-per-view buys coming from overseas, in places like the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, Mexico and Japan.

International markets are likely the UFC’s biggest growth area over the next several years. But thus far, it has only broken into Australia as a strong overseas pay-per-view market, with numbers increasing greatly over the past year. UFC big shows air on regular television in the U.K. and Mexico, but are well behind WWE in popularity in both of those countries.

Lesnar was one of the three standout pay-per-view stars this year, along with Mayweather and Pacquiao. The Mayweather vs. Shane Mosley fight on May in Las Vegas was the top event of 2010, doing an estimated 1,400,000 buys. Pacquiao’s Nov. 13 fight against Antonio Margarito from Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, meanwhile, checked in at No. 2 with 1,150,000 buys.

Clearly in the fourth spot as a drawing card is UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who fought twice over the past year. St. Pierre did an estimated 785,000 buys for his Dec. 11 win over Josh Koscheck and 770,000 for his March 27 win over Dan Hardy.

The latter was part of the most competitive PPV weekend of the year, as UFC ran the night before WWE’s WrestleMania, traditionally one of the top events every year, which dates back to the infancy of pay-per-view technology in the mid-1980s. WWE had what looked to be a strong lineup, but only did about 500,000 buys for an event held the day after the St. Pierre vs. Hardy fight. It marked the second straight year the WWE’s standout event failed to crack the top ten.

While the UFC and WWE publicly claim they are not in competition because one product is entertainment and one is real competition, privately people in both companies recognize there is a major crossover of pay-per-view viewers and right now it’s a fight WWE can’t win even on its best night, as several WWE events were clobbered by UFC cards when both were held on the same weekend.

WWE and the major boxing event numbers are officially released by the promotion. As a privately held company, UFC does not publicly release its pay-per-view figures and the numbers come from estimates within the cable industry.

Top 10 PPV buy rates, 2010

1. Boxing: Floyd Mayweather vs. Shane Mosley, May 1, 1.4 million buys

2. Boxing: Manny Pacquiao vs. Antonio Margarito, Nov. 13, 1,150,000 buys

3. UFC 116: Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin, July 3, 1,100,000 buys

4. UFC 114: Quinton Jackson vs. Rashad Evans, May 29, 1,050,000 buys

5. UFC 121: Lesnar vs. Cain Velasquez, Oct. 23, 1,000,000 buys

6. UFC 124: Georges St. Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck, Dec. 11, 785,000 buys

7. UFC 111: St. Pierre vs. Dan Hardy, March 27, 770,000 buys

8. Boxing: Manny Pacquiao vs. Joshua Clottey, March 13, 700,000 buys

9. UFC 107: Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen, Aug. 7, 600,000 buys

10. UFC 118: Frank Edgar vs. B.J. Penn/Randy Couture vs. James Toney, 535,000 buys

Another milestone for the year was the May 29 fight between Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans. The event was marketed largely as arguably the biggest grudge match in company history, matching up the coaches from a combustible season of The Ultimate Fighter that aired in the fall and winter of 2009.

The match, won by Evans via decision, was nowhere near as explosive as the verbiage that preceded it. But the battle for the No. 1 contenders spot in the light heavyweight division ended up being the biggest non-title fight in company history. The show did roughly double the numbers of the year’s lone 205-lb. championship fight a few weeks earlier, where Mauricio “Shogun” Rua captured the title from Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida.

HBO Boxing held the sports single-year PPV record of $255 million in 2007, largely due to the record breaking Mayweather vs. Oscar de la Hoya fight, but the UFC has beaten that figure in each of the past three years. In 2009, the company did an estimated 7,755,000 buys on 13 events. That included UFC 100, headlined Lesnar vs. Mir, which at 1,600,000 buys, was fourth biggest pay-per-view event in history. The 2009 mark topped the UFC’s own 2008 record, when it did 6,315,000 buys and an estimated $282.3 million.

As we start 2011, UFC has a lot of solid bouts, but no obvious monster fights on the schedule. In boxing, Pacquiao vs. Mosley on May 7 will do big numbers since it’s Pacquiao with a name opponent, even though Mosley ended up not being very competitive with Mayweather after the early rounds. If the elusive Pacquiao vs. Mayweather fight can be worked out, expect it to break all existing single-event records.

Two other potential events in 2011 that could top 1 million buys would be if UFC puts together St. Pierre vs. Anderson Silva, or if Lesnar can work his way back to a title shot with Velasquez.

With Lesnar no longer heavyweight champion, it will be interesting to see how that affects his drawing power this year because he is likely to need at least one win to get a title rematch. Lesnar doesn’t have a fight scheduled, and since he’ll be promoting the release of his autobiography in April, and the shows through the end of April are in the process of being finalized, he isn’t likely to fight until the summer.

The new champion, Velasquez, will be out of action for most of the year due to surgery scheduled to take place this week for a torn rotator cuff. Velasquez would fight either Junior Dos Santos, or if Dos Santos loses in the interim, then likely the person who beats him would get the shot.

Three of the next four UFC events should do well with championship fights on top. Middleweight champion Silva vs. Vitor Belfort (February 5, Las Vegas) is a battle of fighters with a lot of spectacular knockouts, and has a strong undercard featuring Rich Franklin vs. Forrest Griffin. Franklin and Griffin have been regular main eventers, and Griffin has had great success in the past as a drawing card.

Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Evans for the light heavyweight title (March 19 in Newark, N.J.) and St. Pierre vs. Jake Shields for the welterweight title (April 30 in Toronto) should also do solid business, but it would be shocking to see any of those shows approach the 1 million mark.

Given that, UFC will be hard pressed to continue the kind of year-after-year increases that they’ve done the past two years.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011