Great Expectations: Can UFC 91 Top 1 Million Buys?

September 23, 2008

During the conference call announcing Randy Couture v. Brock Lesnar as the main event of UFC 91, Dana White predicted that the event would do in excess of one million buys on pay-per-view. White’s prediction is rumored to be based on internal marketing research that found the fight was the most anticipated the company could deliver, even more anticipated than a potential showdown between Forest Griffin and Chuck Liddell (that eventually went down in flames courtesy of Rashad Evans) or a dream fight between BJ Penn and Georges St. Pierre scheduled for January.

Of course public predictions, focus groups, and gut reactions aside, the fact remains that only one pay-per-view in UFC history has topped one million buys. That fact alone is enough to make any prediction of one million buys questionable. However, that said, if there is a fight on the horizon that can become the second fight to break the one million buy mark, this is it.

It seems safe to assume that Couture’s two fights last year coming off a similar year long layoff represent a safe baseline. Those fights averaged 530,000 against two opponents who were anything but proven draws. To make things easy, let’s assume that Couture fighting anyone in the UFC is worth at least 500,000 buys.

Brock Lesnar’s pay-per-view debut drew 650,000 buys in February. That is an impressive number standing alone, but beyond the headline, the event reportedly drew 300,000 first time buyers, presumably from the ranks of WWE. If any significant percentage of those 300,000 first time buyers were converted into UFC fans (or at least Brock Lesnar in the UFC fans), then the effect on buy rates moving forward would be dramatic. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that is the case with Lesnar’s second pay-per-view event reportedly drawing 625,000 buys (with the help of GSP-Fitch) and the noticeable uptick in pay-per-view numbers following UFC 81 which suggests that a number of those first time buyers may have came back to the UFC for more than Lesnar.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that Lesnar can deliver 300,000 buys from outside of the company’s core audience. That put’s UFC 91 at 800,000 buys. What are the missing ingredients needed to put the event over the top? Mainstream media exposure, which the fight is almost certain to receive, and a dedicated big ticket marketing push from the UFC, which the event is already receiving.

The question is what is that push worth? Only two previous events have received the magnitude of the mainstream push anticipated for Lesnar-Couture: UFC 66: Liddell v. Ortiz II and UFC 71: Liddell v. Jackson II.

UFC 71 was given the big event treatment on ESPN during Memorial Day weekend with a push that led to a euphoria surrounding the event’s pay-per-view potential. White publicly stated that weekend that he expected the fight to do one million buys on the strength of the mainstream exposure. Ultimately, the event drew only 675,000 buys, perhaps offering a cautionary tale on the value of a mainstream push. Without the ESPN rub, based on Liddell’s track record, that event was likely to do in the 500,000 buy range, meaning ESPN was good for 175,000 extra buys.

UFC 66 is something of a different animal to get a hold of analytically. The event received a similar, if not greater and more sustained, push. However, setting a benchmark for the event without the hype is more difficult. Liddell and Ortiz were the company’s two top stars and were guaranteed to draw big numbers with or without the mainstream push. Given that Ortiz and Shamrock drew 750,000 buys at UFC 61 earlier in the year without the benefit of much of a mainstream push (at least not that I recall), it seems fair to say that the added mainstream push was worth somewhere around 250,000 buys.

Assuming that the same level of effect for the push of Lesnar-Couture, combined with Couture’s baseline of 500,000 buys and Lesnar’s added 300,000 buys, that would put UFC 91 at between 975,000 and 1,050,000 (ironically the number drawn by UFC 66).

This number will be closely watched not just because of the great expectations surrounding the event, but for what the number will say about the current state of the sport. Given the decline of the broader economy this year and UFC’s flat pay-per-view numbers, the event will provide an interesting heat check for the MMA industry. Is MMA still hot enough in the mainstream to pop a big number or has the industry cooled slightly in the middle of what appears to be a prolonged consolidation phase in its growth cycle.

Comments are closed.