How the UFC's biggest stars hurt pay-per-view sales in 2014

LAS VEGAS – From a pay-per-view standpoint, 2014 might be regarded as the UFC's lost year.

Dana White protects the UFC's business secrets as if he were trained by the CIA, but even the UFC president concedes that the company suffered in pay-per-view sales this year.

Ronda Rousey (L) takes down Alexis Davis during their women's mixed martial arts bantamweight title bout at UFC 175. (AP)
Ronda Rousey (L) takes down Alexis Davis during their women's mixed martial arts bantamweight title bout at UFC 175. (AP)

No one knows for certain how bad it has been. The UFC does not release its pay-per-view numbers and so any figures you may come across on the Internet are only estimates.

Given that pay-per-view sales come from a variety of sources – numerous cable, satellite and telephone companies, all with competing interests, sell the events and calculate their own sales totals – there is no one person outside of UFC headquarters who has all the accurate information that can put it all together and come up with a correct figure per event.

That's just a fact.

But if the ever-optimistic White says sales were down, then there is no question that sales are down.

Some, particularly those with interests in boxing, have interpreted the drop in PPV sales as a decline in interest in mixed martial arts generally and the UFC specifically.

It could be that's the case, but I doubt it. No one at Fox, either publicly or privately, is complaining about its deal with the UFC. Reebok just came aboard as a title sponsor for the UFC's new uniforms, and the UFC is on the verge of a major sponsorship deal with Monster Energy Drinks.

Most likely, the pay-per-view sales decline stems from the fact that the UFC's biggest names fought so infrequently in 2014. Forget about all the complaints regarding the so-called over saturation problem, because the majority of those excess cards aren't on pay-per-view.

If Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Ronda Rousey, Cain Velasquez, Nick Diaz, Chael Sonnen and Anthony Pettis had each fought three times on pay-per-view in 2014, the conversation would be vastly different. Those eight are, arguably, the UFC's best draws, and between them, they made just four appearances in 2014.

Injury, drug test failures, retirements and holdouts made a mess of the UFC's pay-per-view main events in 2014.

Rousey fought twice, but not after July. Jones and Pettis each fought once, while St-Pierre, Diaz, Silva, Velasquez and Sonnen did not fight at all.

UFC 182 is on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden and it will give a clearer picture of where the company is in terms of interest. The main event that pits Jones against No. 1 contender and arch-rival Daniel Cormier is one of the rare recent bouts that not only figures to sell big but which has fully captured the casual sports fan's interest.

The winner not only will emerge with the UFC's light heavyweight title, but also as the No. 1 fighter in the world.

Egged on by White, the UFC's promotional and marketing team has never met a feud it didn't love. So often, it markets the fights as "feuds" if the athletes dare to say even one cross word to each other. Middleweight Michael Bisping has made a good living at creating feuds out of nothing.

This is one case, though, were the feud is not made up. Jones and Cormier definitely don't like each other, and emotions will be at a fever pitch when they step into the cage to settle their differences on Saturday.

This is a fight that should sell a significant number of pay-per-views. While it would be asking a lot for it to hit a million sales – boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather Jr. could not reach one million sales in either of his two 2014 fights, and he's unquestionably the biggest PPV draw in the industry – it isn't unreasonable to expect UFC 182 to get close to 750,000 sales.

Jones-Cormier is the first of three star-heavy pay-per-view cards that are set for the first two months of 2015.

Silva and Diaz return, from injury and a holdout, respectively, to face each other in the main event of UFC 183 on Jan. 31 at the MGM Grand in what figures to be another high-selling show.

And then UFC 184 at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 28 has a double title fight atop the bill, with Rousey meeting Cat Zingano in the co-main for the women's bantamweight title and Chris Weidman defending the middleweight title against Vitor Belfort in the main.

If those four bouts go off as planned, we'll have a much greater idea on March 1 of the UFC's position in the sports and entertainment marketplace.

There was a lot not to like about what went on for the UFC in 2014. Troubling questions were raised near the end of the year when three anti-trust lawsuits were filed against the company by former and current fighters.

What seems certain about the lawsuit is that the legal teams from both sides will make money, and lots of it. That's how it always goes in these types of things.

Anthony Pettis (top) defeated Gilbert Melendez during UFC 181. (USA TODAY Sports)
Anthony Pettis (top) defeated Gilbert Melendez during UFC 181. (USA TODAY Sports)

Whether the cases ever get to trial is an unanswerable question now. The only thing that is a guarantee is that it will be an extraordinarily slow process and that the lawyers will make out the best financially.

So much is unknown about the business affairs on both sides that it's virtually impossible to predict how the class-action suits will eventually turn out.

There is a lot of grumbling by some in the fan base that fighters are underpaid, and the two suits and some of the public comments made by fighters would seem to support the fact there is some level of discontent.

Fighters are risking their health by competing and clearly deserve to earn as much as is possible for it. The problem is that a sustainable business can't afford to pay everyone massive amounts of money.

So while Mayweather may not be willing to take a shot to the head for less than $30 million, it's not a luxury that fighters still looking to make it have. They can demand whatever they want, but if a company wants to sustain over the long haul, it has to make sure expenses match revenues.

It's a lesson that those who ran Affliction's short-lived fight promotion quickly learned. And, it's why the UFC ultimately purchased Strikeforce. The company was hemorrhaging money and was deeply in the hole at the time its owners gave up and sold it to the UFC. Part of the reason for its failure was because of some bad contracts it gave to fighters.

Now, the UFC's revenues are a lot higher than any other promotion's has ever been, and if the anti-trust cases go to trial, we'll likely learn whether the company is paying the fighters a fair amount.

Mayweather earns his $30 million or so because he sells tickets and pay-per-views, and generates a lot of money. But there are few fighters alive like Mayweather who can do that. Jones, Rousey and Silva are among the few in MMA who sell, although they are nowhere near the level of Mayweather.

The point is that in terms of what they're worth on the open market, a fighter is not much different than an item up for sale on eBay: They're worth what someone will pay for them.

Currently, the UFC's minimum pay is $8,000 to show with an $8,000 win bonus which, believe it or not, is vastly ahead of boxing. Its upper end pay scale is vastly below boxing's, though it's not quite clear what the scale is.

Jones is scheduled to earn $500,000 on Saturday for his defense against Cormier (though he owes 10 percent to the Nevada Athletic Commission for his role in an August brawl between them during a promotional stop). But it is believed that Jones will make far in excess of $500,000.

No one, though, in a position to know will say. It's a safe bet, though, that no matter how much he'll make, he won't come close to what Mayweather is guaranteed in his Showtime contract.

Floyd Mayweather (R), talking to Clippers guard Chris Paul, has the nickname Money for good reason. (AP)
Floyd Mayweather (R), talking to Clippers guard Chris Paul, has the nickname Money for good reason. (AP)

But while Mayweather makes many tens of millions per fight, there are men who have fought on the same show as he does who have made less than $2,000.

So much of the talk surrounding the UFC was around drugs, money and injuries. The UFC still hasn't come up with an acceptable plan to test its athletes for performance enhancing drugs. The vast majority of fans aren't consumed by salaries and simply want to see great fights.

While UFC undercards often have terrific matches, it's almost always the main event that sells and fight cards are judged, fairly or not, by the main and in few cases, the co-main event.

If on March 1, after Jones-Cormier, Silva-Diaz, Rousey-Zingano and Weidman-Belfort are held, the pay-per-view sales are still dismal, then it might be time to re-evaluate.

It says here, though, that the biggest problem for the sport in 2014 was the lack of activity by its most popular athletes.

If that changes in 2015, the fortunes of the entire industry will change along with it.