UFC remains king of PPV hill

After setting pay-per-view industry records in 2009, the Ultimate Fighting Championship faces opposition from boxing and wrestling over the next several months as it attempts to maintain last year’s levels.

It’s estimated that UFC, which didn’t publicly release figures, did nearly 8 million buys in the United States and Canada on 13 pay-per-view events this past year. That includes six of the year’s top 10 buyrates and 11 of the top 15.

UFC’s numbers are even more impressive when one considers that several of the company’s biggest drawing cards missed most of the second half of the year for various reasons.

Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar fought only once in 2009, since he was sidelined with an illness eventually diagnosed as Diverticulitis. But Lesnar stayed on his perch as the king of PPV, headlining the year’s biggest event, UFC 100, which drew 1.6 million buys. Lesnar’s win over Frank Mir trailed only three events in PPV history, all boxing matches: the 2007 Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather fight, and Mike Tyson’s 2002 match with Lennox Lewis and 1997 fight with Evander Holyfield.

Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who appears to be the company’s second-biggest draw, also didn’t fight after July due to an abductor muscle tear in his victory over Thiago Alves. Middleweight champion Anderson Silva didn’t right after Aug. 8 due to elbow surgery. And what was expected to be the company’s biggest fight of the second half of 2009, a Quinton Jackson-Rashad Evans grudge match built off “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, won’t be taking place until May due to Jackson getting the part of B.A. Baracus in “The A-Team” movie which was being filmed at the end of this past year.

There are no obvious 2010 blockbusters on the horizon. The Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather boxing match, which could have broken every PPV record in the book, fell apart over a battle on the subject of drug testing. UFC is still feeling the effects of its rash of injuries, as except for B.J. Penn, all of its champions were simultaneously out of action for a five-month period that doesn’t end until late March.

UFC’s biggest potential fight looks to be a trilogy fight between Lesnar and former champ Mir, who have split their first two matches. But that will only happen if Mir beats Shane Carwin on March 27 in Newark, N.J. St. Pierre and Penn both emerged off their match at UFC 94 as bigger stars than ever before, but neither has an opponent on the horizon in their own division ready to push them to record box office numbers. A rematch between the two is difficult because St. Pierre won in one-sided fashion last year.

The last weekend of March will be a big one for the pay-per-view industry. Mir vs. Carwin for the interim heavyweight title, with the winner getting Lesnar in the summer, will be a co-feature with the return of St. Pierre, defending against England’s Dan Hardy. That would be expected to do UFC’s best numbers since August, if not UFC 100.

Top 10 PPV buy rates, 2009

1. UFC 100: Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir, July 11, 1.6 million

2. Boxing: Manny Pacquiao vs. Miguel Cotto, Nov. 14, 1.25 million

3. Boxing: Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Juan Manuel Marquez, Sept. 19, 1.05 millon

4. UFC 94: Georges St. Pierre vs. B.J. Penn, Jan. 31, 920,000 buys

5. UFC 101: Penn vs. Kenny Florian/Anderson Silva vs. Forrest Griffin, Aug. 8, 850,000

6. Boxing: Pacquiao vs. Ricky Hatton, May 2, 825,000

7t. UFC 107: Penn vs. Diego Sanchez, Dec. 12, 650,000

7t. UFC 97: Silva vs. Thales Leites/Chuck Liddell vs. Mauricio Rua, April 18, 650,000

9. UFC 99: Lyoto Machida vs. Rashad Evans/Matt Hughes vs. Matt Serra, May 23, 635,000

10. Wrestling: WWE WrestleMania 25, April 5, 582,000 buys

The next day, World Wrestling Entertainment presents its biggest event of the year, WrestleMania 26, from the University of Phoenix Stadium. Pro wrestling events generally fare poorly on the day after UFC cards, as the bulk of pay-per-view purchases are made by friends who gather to watch the fights, but generally speaking, people aren’t going to do that twice on the same weekend. WrestleMania could be the exception, since it’s the one annual event that people who no longer follow wrestling still buy. While most WWE monthly PPV’s do less than 150,000 buys in North America, WrestleMania last year did an estimated 582,000 buys.

HBO Boxing, which had a 2009 strategy of putting more major fights on HBO instead of PPV, with the idea it would pay dividends in the future by building more of a younger base audience for the sport, only had three major pay-per-view events. But all were major successes, doing a combined estimated 3,125,000 buys. All three events finished top six for the year and in hindsight, holding fewer events made the individual events come across as more special.

Even though UFC has outpaced boxing over the course of the year for the past several years, boxing still has the capability with the right fight to do bigger numbers than even the best UFC event.

WWE, which as a pay-per-view company is more international in scope than the others, held 14 events over the past year, doing an estimated 4,600,000 worldwide buys and of that, roughly 2,850,000 buys were from North America. The company has had a steady decline in pay–per-view numbers, particularly in North America, since the emergence of UFC as a television entity in 2005. Its strategy for 2010 has been to raise its price from $39.95 to $44.95, putting it in line with UFC pricing, and cut from 14 to 13 events.

While all mixed martial arts, boxing and pro wrestling are obviously three different products, there is enough of a crossover audience to makes them competitors. After the September 19 Mayweather vs. Juan Manuel Marquez boxing match did monster numbers opposite a UFC show headlined by Rich Franklin vs. Vitor Belfort, which did one of the company’s lowest numbers of the year, UFC president Dana White avoided head-to-head confrontations. When Mayweather vs. Shane Mosley was announced for May 1, White moved his scheduled Lyoto Machida vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua light heavyweight title rematch in Montreal back a week to May 8.

Since HBO and WWE are both public companies, their PPV numbers are publicly released. However, with the rise in success of UFC, boxing promoter Bob Arum, who promoted the Manny Pacquiao vs. Ricky Hatton fight, would not allow HBO to publicly release the figures for that fight. UFC, a private company, generally doesn’t release numbers and information on the Pacquiao-Hatton fight and UFC numbers are garnered from a variety of industry sources.

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 Monday, Feb 15, 2010