GSP vs BJ: Does The Sport of MMA Sell?

November 25, 2008

The UFC has been making the press rounds in hyping up the showdown between lightweight champ BJ Penn and welterweight champ Georges St Pierre. From a sporting perspective this should be a fight of the year candidate, but UFC President Dana White also sees success on PPV:

White said last week’s UFC heavyweight championship bout between Brock Lesnar and Randy Couture is expected to set pay-per-view records for the organization. He thinks the Jan. 31 card could be just as popular, which would equate to more than 1 million buys.

“I’m just coming off a promotion where I got done saying it’s the biggest fight in UFC history in terms of most pay-per-view buys,” White said. “I truly believe this fight has the potential to break that. BJ and Georges are heavyweights when it comes to star power.”

The GSP vs Penn II fight should be a measuring stick as to whether the sport of MMA can sell as well as the spectacle of MMA. That is basically the argument that Dana White is making in stating that he expects the welterweight showdown to approach the sales of Lesnar vs Couture.

The Lesnar vs Couture fight was an intriguing match-up to be sure, but one that drew much more from the spectacle aspect than the sport. Lesnar’s appeal, in large part, is derived from the pro wrestling past that exposed him to much of the mainstream. Couture’s appeal has always lain greatly in his story more so than having an exciting fighting style. Couture’s battle against father time as well as his perpetual role as the underdog has driven much of the fan following he has derived.

The history of big sales on PPV is rooted more in spectacle than sport. Shamrock vs Ortiz 2 and Hughes vs Gracie as well as Brock Lesnar’s first two fights this year all did over 600k buys not based any kind of sporting element to the fights. None of the match-ups that drew such big numbers included the highest caliber of fighters facing off, with the Shammy vs Ortiz and Hughes vs Gracie fights both being huge mismatches on paper going in.

Conversely, true match ups of the highest caliber fighters are sometimes met with indifference. Anderson Silva vs Dan Henderson matched up two individuals that were both considered Top 10 pound for pound at the time and the PPV was met with indifference, doing 320 to 330k buys. Dana emphasizes the star power of St Pierre and Penn, but their star power is within the context of the MMA sphere, not as much with the mainstream like Couture and Lesnar. I’m sure the UFC will look to renew their ties with ESPN, mimicking the build up to Couture v Lesnar, but neither fighter has near the mainstream appeal of those two. That’s not to say that the fight won’t do very good numbers, just no the great numbers that Dana is expecting.

The UFC is planning a 24/7 style hype series for the GSP vs Penn 2 showdown but there will be an upper ceiling on the the numbers the fight will be able to do, based on the sporting angle being the hook for the fight. A number somewhere slightly above the GSP vs Serra 2 range (say 10 to 15% over that fight’s 550k buys) would be a more reasonable expectation. Approaching a million buys or surpassing Couture vs Lesnar look to be fanciful projections, or maybe just a case of a promoter promoting.

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