Lesnar blasts UFC toward record year

It’s been a crazy year for the pay-per-view business.

The three biggest pay-per-views in mixed martial arts were headlined by someone who had never even fought for the UFC before 2007, Brock Lesnar, and gained most of his fame as a pro wrestler, although he never pro wrestled during the year.

The biggest pay-per-view event in pro wrestling was headlined by one of the biggest names in boxing, Floyd Mayweather Jr., who never boxed during the year.

And the biggest event in boxing was headlined by what most were calling a mismatch, Oscar De La Hoya vs. Manny Pacquiao, with one fighter, Pacquiao having to jump up several weight classes for a bout heavily criticized beforehand. It turned out to be a mismatch, but not in the way most had predicted going in.

But when the dust settled on an unusual year, the biggest news of 2008 was the emergence of Lesnar as the year's pay-per-view king. Lesnar's 2.2 million buys over three fights made him the most-watched PPV fighter in 2008. His total was the second highest total in UFC history, trailing only Tito Ortiz, who did 2.25 million in headlining three events in 2006.

Lesnar, a former NCAA wrestling champion who had only one mixed martial arts fight before signing with UFC at the end of 2007, drew an estimate 1,010,000 buys for his heavyweight title win over Randy Couture at UFC 91 on Nov. 15. He also drew in the 600,000 buy range for both a February loss to Frank Mir and an August match with Heath Herring (which was part of a double headline event that also included Georges St. Pierre vs. Jon Fitch for the welterweight title), which were the fourth and fifth biggest PPV totals of the year.

Lesnar’s fights brought a new audience to UFC broadcasts, with company officials estimating close to half of the audience for his debut fight had never purchased a UFC event before.

The new heavyweight champion's impact also gives the UFC a shot at having the biggest business year in the history of pay-per-view sports.

With one event left on the calendar, the Dec. 27 UFC 92 event from Las Vegas, the company is estimated at selling 5,315,000 pay-per-view orders totaling $237.9 million, already handily beating their marks in the $220-225 million range of 2006 and 2007.

With 12 pay-per-view events in 2008, UFC has a good shot at breaking the all-time record for pay-per-view revenue set by any organization during a calendar year. The World Wrestling Federation, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment, did approximately $260 million on pay-per-view during its heyday fueled headliners by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, in 2001. Boxing's biggest year was 2007, with HBO estimating $255 million on eight shows, carried by the Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr., fight, which drew pay-per-view's all-time record of 2.4 million buys.

Top 10 North American PPV buy rates, 2008

1. Boxing: Oscar De La Hoya vs. Manny Pacquiao, Dec. 6, 1,250,000

2. UFC: Brock Lesnar vs. Randy Couture, Nov. 15, 1,010,000

3. Wrestling: WrestleMania, Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Paul "Big Show" Wight, March 30, 670,000

4. UFC: Georges St. Pierre vs. Jon Fitch/Lesnar vs. Heath Herring, Aug. 9, 625,000

5. UFC: Lesnar vs. Frank Mir, Feb. 2, 600,000

6. UFC: Quinton Jackson vs. Forrest Griffin, July 5, 540,000

7. UFC: St. Pierre vs. Matt Serra, April 19, 530,000

8. Boxing: Felix Trinidad vs. Roy Jones Jr., Jan. 19, 500,000

9. UFC: Chuck Liddell vs. Rashad Evans, Sept. 6, 480,000

10. UFC: B.J. Penn vs. Sean Sherk/Tito Ortiz vs. Lyoto Machida, May 24, 475,000

UFC needs about 514,000 buys out of its final show of the year to break the WWF single-year revenue record. The show features a triple bill of Forrest Griffin vs. Rashad Evans for the light heavyweight title, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Frank Mir for the interim heavyweight title and a future shot at Lesnar to unify the titles, and Wanderlei Silva vs. Quinton Jackson.

That lineup, the deepest of the year in terms of marquee matches, should surpass that number, although an uncertain economy makes that slightly less than a slam dunk. The numbers for the most recent show do strengthen UFC president Dana White’s position that the faltering economy will not affect the company on pay-per-view, although conceded it will affect them when it comes to selling high-priced tickets to live events, as well as in sponsorships.

Lesnar vs. Couture was the second highest buy rate in company history, trailing a 1,050,000 estimate for the 2006 match with Chuck Liddell defending the light heavyweight title against Tito Ortiz. There is the possibility, with late-recorded PPV buys, that it could end up as the record holder.

With UFC’s biggest numbers usually drawn by light heavyweights, it was the biggest-drawing heavyweight fight in North America since the 2002 Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson boxing championship match.

Based on Couture’s pay-per-view bonuses, which were revealed in a 2007 press conference after Couture quit UFC, and the numbers released, Couture would get a total of $2.61 million for the fight, more than double his prior biggest career earnings for any fight, of which $2.36 million came from the back end. Lesnar’s take is unknown due to his percentage not being released, other than he received $450,000 before any bonuses kicked in.

HBO boxing, which finished its year on pay-per-view on Saturday with the De La Hoya vs. Manny Pacquiao fight, is estimated at 3.57 million buys and $183.2 million in gross revenue on nine events. The Dec. 6 showdown was the single biggest pay-per-view event of the year, doing 1,250,000 buys and $70 million in total revenue, making it the third biggest non-heavyweight fight in history.

"We heard some crazy numbers the last few days about what the show might do," said UFC president Dana White. "That’s a great number and it’s Oscar De La Hoya. I’ve always said boxing has De La Hoya and there’s nobody else like him. To be as big an event as that was, and for us (with Lesnar vs. Couture) in this short of a time to end up with right them, I’m really pumped up about it."

The biggest pro wrestling event, WWE’s annual WrestleMania, promoted around Mayweather’s debut as a pro wrestler, culminating several live appearances for the group, did 1,058,000 buys worldwide, but WWE does a substantial portion of its business outside North America. North American numbers for the show are estimated at 670,000, putting it as the third biggest event of the year.

All three of the biggest events of the year came under heavy criticism. Mayweather was criticized for being involved with pro wrestling. UFC was criticized first for pushing Lesnar, even though his NCAA championship in amateur wrestling, size and athletic credentials made him clearly an incredible prospect at the sport. Later, they were criticized for giving him a championship match while only having a 2-1 record, which was valid criticism on paper, but like with the criticism of De La Hoya vs. Pacquiao, the guy who was supposed to be mismatched ended up winning.

With its November event numbers not reported yet, and a final event scheduled for Sunday, WWE has sold 4,125,000 pay-per-view orders so far this year, with approximately 2.7 million in North America, on 12 events. The total gross revenue at this point would be about $123 million domestically.

Of the top ten domestic shows of the year, UFC will have likely end up with seven, with the three Lesnar events, as well as shows headlined by St. Pierre vs. Matt Serra, B.J. Penn vs. Sean Shark, Jackson vs. Griffin and Liddell vs. Evans. The year-end show will likely end up in the top ten. Boxing will have two, with Felix Trinidad vs. Roy Jones Jr. cracking the top ten, while pro wrestling will have one. The 7-2-1 breakdown is identical to both 2007 and 2006.