UFC tackles long-term growth issues

The success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship over the past three years has always carried with it one major question: Is this a long-term sport or a short-term fad?

After all, when what was essentially an underground sport suddenly becomes popular based largely on a reality show on a cable station, it’s easy to question its longevity.

But as we’ve passed three years, it’s looking more and more like “fad” is not the right word.

Short-term, most signs are very strong, particularly on recent pay-per-view numbers. But are questions that remain before mixed martial arts can be declared a permanent, significant part of our sports culture. Can MMA create new headlining stars? And how will the UFC manage to improve its television profile?

On pay-per-view television, the company’s most important revenue stream, the last five outings have produced three of the company’s top 10 shows.

The run started with the Dec. 29 event with a Wanderlei Silva vs. Chuck Liddell top match( with a strong No. 2 match with Georges St. Pierre vs. Matt Hughes); the Feb. 2 show featuring the debut of Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir; and the most recent April 19 show with St. Pierre vs. Matt Serra. It’s the company’s best run since late 2006, and that’s throwing in a much-criticized price increase from $39.95 to $44.95 per show.

This surge in pay-per-view revenue has come during a time most believe the country is in recession.

UFC does not release pay-per-view numbers, but all three events are believed to have fallen in the range of 525,000-650,000 buys. Dec. 29 and April 19 both did $5 million in live gates, ranking No. 3 and No. 2, respectively, in company history.

At $5.1 million in U.S. dollars, the St. Pierre vs. Serra set the Canadian record for the largest combat sports live gate in history, beating the record set by Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran in 1980.

Another good sign is that aside from Liddell, who was established as the company’s biggest star when he beat Randy Couture just as UFC and Spike TV began their partnership, the company drew big numbers with new drawing cards.

Lesnar, who made his name first as a pro wrestler, was in his first UFC match and the show was marketed as almost a “What if a world champion pro wrestler fought for real?” type of event. He garnered more interest for his debut than any fighter in UFC history. But there are certainly questions whether or not he’ll be a long-term drawing card.

Was it a one-time curiosity, or will people be interested in his second match, on Aug. 9 in Minneapolis, when he faces Mark Coleman, an aging MMA legend?

UFC also had the belief that Lesnar drew from a different audience than they usually attract – specifically, pro wrestling fans – which again brings into question whether that fan base will buy a second time.

People who didn’t see the fight and heard about Lesnar losing in 90 seconds by submission to Mir may now consider Lesnar a joke. Most who saw the fight would have a different opinion, since Lesnar, a former NCAA champion heavyweight in college, looked as impressive as anyone could look in a debut match with a quick submission loss.

The raw, athletic talent that some didn’t want to accept because he came from the entertainment world was clearly evident. Lesnar made a mistake based on inexperience. Even if UFC is able to market the match around Lesnar looking for redemption and create an aura around Coleman’s last shot, this time Lesnar has to win. If he does draw again, it’s going to be difficult to promote him in a headline position with two straight losses.

If Lesnar doesn’t work out, the match was still a success, because Mir came out with more notoriety and popularity than at any point in his career. The former champion is now the probable next challenger for interim heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, in a match that should take place in late 2008.

You can certainly make a strong case there are more worthy contenders from a win/loss standpoint than Mir. But barring an injury or something unforeseen, such as Randy Couture and UFC settling their legal differences, that win looks to have given Mir a shot at regaining the title he once held.

The success of St. Pierre is another strong long-term sign. At the age of 26, he figures to have significant longevity as a welterweight champion or leading contender. While Lesnar’s ability to be a championship-level heavyweight is a major question, St. Pierre has looked unstoppable and whatever mental questions there were about him last year were seemingly answered when he withstood a tremendous amount of pressure in dominating Serra.

Of course, everyone thought that of St. Pierre in late 2006 after he beat Hughes for the first time. Then Matt Serra walked in, knocked St. Pierre out and opened up a whole line of questions that it seemingly took St. Pierre a year to fully answer.

Short-term business indicators are also good. The only negative this year is that while Lesnar did big numbers on pay-per-view, they had to heavily paper the Mandalay Bay Events Center, drawing barely 7,000 paid.

The probable answer is that Lesnar drew from the WWE audience, which is used to buying pay-per-view, but those fans aren’t as used to coming to Las Vegas and paying UFC ticket prices for a live event.

Any worries it was a sign that Las Vegas, the company’s home market, was burning out have been alleviated since the next show, on May 24 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, has only a few hundred tickets left, as does London on June 7.

At this point, expectations for the July 5 show in Las Vegas is that the bout between Quinton Jackson vs. Forrest Griffin for the light heavyweight title will do high-end business. The two are building the match weekly as opposing coaches on the reality show, and light heavyweight championship has been the company’s marquee division largely from the day it was created.

But there still exists a huge long-term question.

As strong as the UFC brand name is today, to remain that way, it needs a television vehicle. Without a television show that draws a significant audience to pump up the pay-per-view events, interest in those fights will quickly wane.

The Ultimate Fighter show has worked in that role up to this point. But as it starts filming its eighth season in a few weeks, it’s fare to wonder if the shows format isn’t getting stale. After all, there are only so many ways to frame 16 fighters in a house, watching similar training sessions, sound bites and fights in a gym with no spectators, before it gets stale.

Ratings have slipped the last few seasons, and the April 30 show hit a low point with a 0.91 rating and 1.2 million viewers. Whether the show can ride a few more cycles over the next few years, it’s television, and thus, it’s guaranteed that it will not last forever.

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 Friday, May 2, 2008