Who is the Biggest UFC PPV Draw? – Part 1

August 11, 2010

Overview: One of the common debates among MMA fans concerns which fighter is the biggest draw.  From the business side, a fighter’s draw shapes PPV expectations (and, subsequently, PPV revenues) and should play a major role in sponsorships for both the given fighter and every other fighter on the PPV.  In this series of articles, we’ll examine several intuitive ways that one can estimate a fighter’s draw and examine the wide variation in these estimates.  We’ll be focusing on the ten fighters that Derek Jenkins identified as the biggest draws in a recent article at Yahoo! Sports.

Today’s Comparison: Average PPV buys versus average PPV buys for cards with a fighter

Welcome to the first part of our series on which fighters are the biggest UFC PPV draws.  We’ll start with some basic numbers today and increase the difficulty as we progress through the series.

The Number

Average PPV buys are the most basic numbers we can use to determine a fighter’s draw.  Today, we’ll take the average number of buys for all UFC PPVs (including events with all ten fighters) and compare it with the average number of buys for UFC PPVs featuring each fighter.

We’ll discuss the reasons below, but we will look at the numbers from 2006-present and 2008-present.

The Fighters

As mentioned in the overview, we’ll be using the ten fighters that Derek Jenkins identified as the biggest draws: Brock Lesnar, Georges St. Pierre, Chuck Liddell, Rashad Evans, Quinton Jackson, Forrest Griffin, Lyoto Machida, BJ Penn, Anderson Silva, and Randy Couture.

The Data

We’ll be using the PPV buys for all UFC pay-per-view events from UFC 57 (Couture-Liddell III) to UFC 116 (Lesnar-Carwin).  You can view the PPV buys for events up to UFC 107 in our MMAPayout.com Blue Book.

Average buys for all UFC PPVs since 2006: 545,000

Fighter Average PPV buys for cards featuring fighter Difference from overall average
Brock Lesnar 1,007,000 462,000
Georges St. Pierre 682,000 137,000
Chuck Liddell 600,000 55,000
Rashad Evans 577,000 32,000
Quinton Jackson 669,000 124,000
Forrest Griffin 602,000 57,000
Lyoto Machida 572,000 27,000
BJ Penn 539,000 -6,000
Anderson Silva 456,000 -89,000
Randy Couture 530,000 -15,000

Average buys for all UFC PPVs since 2008: 581,000

Fighter Average PPV buys for cards featuring fighter Difference from overall average
Brock Lesnar 1,007,000 426,000
Georges St. Pierre 889,000 308,000
Chuck Liddell 550,000 -31,000
Rashad Evans 693,000 112,000
Quinton Jackson 735,000 154,000
Forrest Griffin 691,000 110,000
Lyoto Machida 610,000 29,000
BJ Penn 603,000 22,000
Anderson Silva 530,000 -51,000
Randy Couture 573,000 -8,000

Payout Perspective

Quick Thoughts

Regardless of which table you look at, two numbers confirm the general consensus – Brock Lesnar is a huge draw, and Anderson is a weak draw.

Chuck Liddell is a bit less of a draw when you look at the numbers for 2008-present, but your perspective can be swayed quite a bit based on whether you look at the left-hand column or the right-hand column.  If you compare the left-hand columns in both tables, Liddell drops about 50,000 PPV buys when you drop the numbers from 2006-07 (from 600,000 to 550,000).  If you instead look at the right-hand column, Liddell goes from drawing 55,000 PPV buys above the average buyrate of 545,000 to losing 31,000 buys from the average buyrate of 581,000.  Even though his overall numbers don’t change drastically, he appears to go from draw to anti-draw.

Georges St. Pierre became a star and looks like the only true MMA star to breakthrough to the mainstream.  One interesting aspect of GSP’s draw is to look at the fights from 2006-07 that get dropped in the second table.  These fights are: BJ Penn, Matt Hughes (GSP wins title), Matt Serra, Josh Koscheck, and Hughes again.  These were all huge fights when they happened, which highlights just how popular GSP has become as the sport continued to grow.

One thing that’s easy to overlook is the growth in the average number of PPV buys 2006-present (545,000) and 2008-present (581,000).  The extra 36,000 buys may not look very big, but it amounts to an additional $1,620,000[i] in PPV revenue (of which the UFC gets about 50%) per event.  If you then look at the sheer number of events the UFC runs now, those 36,000 extra buys add a substantial amount of money to Zuffa’s bottom line.

The Number

Average PPV buys are the most basic numbers we can use to determine a fighter’s draw.  We’ll take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of these numbers.

STRENGTHS

Simplicity. The primary strength of using such a simple number is that everyone understands the number.

Consistent baseline. The second big advantage in comparing a fighter’s average PPV buys to the overall average PPV is that we get a consistent baseline.  This consistent baseline allows us to compare the numbers for one fighter with the numbers for another fighter (eg. the difference between a fighter’s average and the overall average, presented in the right-hand column of both tables).  In the 2008-present table, we see that Machida is good for 29,000 buys above the average and Penn for 22,000.  Since both of these numbers use the same baseline, we can easily conclude that Machida pay-per-views generally get 7,000 buys more than Penn pay-per-views.

Aggregate information. Given that most fighters only fight a handful of times each year, aggregating their PPV buys over several years can give a better picture of a fighter’s draw, especially if a fighter only fought once in a year; in that situation, a fighter’s average PPV buyrate is identical to the buyrate for the only PPV he fought on.

WEAKNESSES

Hides changes over time. The downside to aggregate information is that it can hide trends over time.  Given that MMA is still in its infancy and has experienced substantial growth in recent years, we would expect numbers from recent years to be more representative of a fighter’s draw.  This issue is the primary reason we presented information from 2006-present and 2008-present.  2008 is the first year that all ten fighters appeared in the UFC, with Lesnar and Machida being the most recent to fight for Zuffa.  Using numbers from 2006 and 2007 may penalize fighters – like Liddell and Couture – who were headlining PPV events when the sport was less popular.

Makes good draws look worse and bad draws look better. Consider Brock Lesnar, whose worst PPV did 600,000 buys.  His five PPVs in the dataset sold 600K, 625K, 1.01 million, 1.6 million, and 1.2 million.  These PPVs drive up the overall UFC average, which is what Lesnar is being compared to here.  A better comparison for Lesnar is to compare his average PPV buyrate to the average buyrate for all UFC PPVs that do not feature Lesnar.  Similarly, weaker draws like Anderson Silva look better because their lower buyrates pull the overall average buyrate down.

Someone has to be worse than average. This point is tied to the previous one, but it deserves special attention.  Only seven pay-per-view events since 2006 have not featured any of these ten fighters.  Essentially, we’re comparing these ten fighters against the average of all ten.  In doing so, someone has to have an average buyrate that’s below the overall average.  Mathematically, it’s just how averages work.  The problem here is that a fighter can look like an anti-draw, meaning people literally turn off the television or refuse to buy a PPV, when a certain fighter is on the card.  This also implies that the UFC would get a higher buyrate on an Anderson Silva card if they dropped him from the card, which is a bit absurd and probably not true.  If Silva had gotten hurt and Zuffa replaced him with Nate Marquardt against Chael Sonnen, the buyrate would likely be lower than if Silva was on the card.  Even though Silva looks bad in these tables, it’s because we’re comparing him to the other major draws in the UFC.  Dropping him from the card and replacing him with Marquardt would have given a more accurate picture of how many buys Silva pulls in against a UFC PPV without a “major headliner” which still has a solid card.  (Side note: Matt Hughes was arguably the biggest name on UFC 117 after Silva, and his place fourth-from-the-top of the card should tell you that Zuffa thinks Hughes’ days as a headliner are over.)

UP NEXT

In part two, we’ll break down these numbers by year.  This breakdown will let us see how much of a difference aggregating our data makes.  As we continue on in the series, we’ll address some of the other issues raised above.


[i] The $1,620,000 figure is based on 36,000 buys at $45 each.  Given that the lowest price for a UFC PPV is $44.95 and increases for the HD broadcast, we are likely underestimating the additional revenue from the 36,000 additional PPV buys.

____________________________________________________________________________

Tony Williams is a PhD candidate in economics at the University of Zurich.  He holds prior degrees in political science, economics, and mathematics from Florida State University, an MA in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and is expected to be awarded a MSc in social psychology from London School of Economics at the end of the year.  He has followed mixed martial arts for over seven years and currently lives in Zurich, Switzerland.

25 Responses to “Who is the Biggest UFC PPV Draw? – Part 1”

  1. Matt C. on August 11th, 2010 10:13 AM

    Love seeing stuff like this. Very interesting info. Looking forward to part 2.

  2. Who is the biggest UFC PPV draw ( article) - Page 2 - Sherdog Mixed Martial Arts Forums on August 11th, 2010 11:42 AM

    […] Posted by Eltros Here is the article I was not surprised at how much Brock crushed everyone else but I was more shocked at the bottom […]

  3. Michael Rome on August 11th, 2010 11:56 AM

    How does this take strength of card into consideration, or does it at all?

    Someone like Rashad Evans benefits enormously from being on a card like UFC 92 with 3 main events, whereas Randy Couture headlines against Mark Coleman with no help on the rest of the card.

    Similarly, until this past weekend, the UFC made sure to help out Anderson Silva by pairing him with other big superstars to keep him happy with his pay.

  4. Tony Williams on August 11th, 2010 12:31 PM

    Hi Michael,

    No, it doesn’t take strength of card into account, though that’s obviously an important factor. There’s also no attempt to find ways of sharing the draw among fighters when they’re on the same card or when they fight each other, which Kelsey has done in the past by assigning 70% credit to main event and 30% to co-main in the MMA Payout Power Rankings (http://mmapayout.com/2009/12/mmapayout-coms-2009-power-rankings/). These really are just raw averages for each fighter, and they get each get full credit for the PPV buys of any card they fought on.

    I’m interested in the type of issues you’re bringing up, but that kind of analysis gets complex very quickly – especially in MMA, where you just don’t have large enough sample sizes to really tease things out of the data. This series will still keep things easy to grasp, and part two already starts getting messy with the year-by-year breakdown since there are so many numbers floating around. However, you’ll probably see much deeper data analysis after this series is finished.

  5. Who is the Biggest UFC PPV Draw? – Part 1 : MMAPayout.com: The … | MixedMartialArtsNation.com on August 11th, 2010 1:03 PM

    […] Excerpt from: Who is the Biggest UFC PPV Draw? – Part 1 : MMAPayout.com: The … […]

  6. Diego on August 11th, 2010 1:04 PM

    Tony,

    Interesting analysis.

    One thing to take a look at for a future analysis is to adjust for title fights. We know that title fights deliver a PPV boost, it would be interesting to see the results on an even playing field. I’m always impressed when non-title fights draw big numbers (Quinton-Rashad) and I wonder how many people would tune in to A. Silva’s fights if he didn’t have a title.

  7. BrainSmasher on August 11th, 2010 8:39 PM

    Good point Diego. Brock for example. His 600K PPV days where before he was champ. Brock getting the belt seems to give him a legitimacy that basically doubled the interest in him. I would like to see fighter PPV numbers set up with belt and without belt. It would be neat to see the difference a Chuck Liddel drew once he lost his belt and Brock once he got the belt. Brock is the most intriguing. All his story lines were already there when he was getting 600K. The belt alone has made him the draw he is today. It tells me that people dont like the gimmicks and waited until he was a legit fighter before tuning in. The belt did that for him. Until that point people saw him as publicity stunt .

  8. tanner boyle on August 11th, 2010 8:44 PM

    How do you factor in the International PPVs? Do they as a rule draw better or worse than US PPVs?

  9. ggg on August 11th, 2010 9:01 PM

    so what this article is trying to say is…GET a WWE talent who has been marketed on free TV and all the tours worldwide and make him your heavyweight champ…so boxing should have hired hulk hogan and let him fight mike tyson back in the 80’s lol….
    also how come the most talented guy is not in the top 3 in ppv? anderson silva why did the fans chant u.s.a u.s.a when he fought sonnen…and why did the fans chant u.s.a us.a when dos santos fought nelson….i dont get it? im a fight fan and whoever is a good fighter i root for…but here they are booing non american fighters…so pretty much the ufc is an american sport….white at that…

  10. Diego on August 12th, 2010 1:40 PM

    ggg,

    An American fighting A.. Silva in Brazil would probably have to deal with fans waving Brazilian flags and chanting whatever it is those fans chant. Similarly, head over to Moscow to fight Fedor and see if the fans give you a warm reception. The UFC is not an American sport – only 2 out of 5 champions are American – California is definitely American, and most fans who attend fights come from nearby (a possible exception is fights held in Vegas).

    Fans are always going to root for “their” guy, meaning hometown favorite over opponent from the same state, home-state favorite over opponent from somewhere else in the country and home-country fighter over foreign fighter. That’s why you hear chants of “USA”. Note that one of the top PPV draws is GSP.

    As for “white at that”, Quinton, Rashad and BJ Penn are big draws and Jon Jones is figuring to get that way. They are draws because of their talent and personality, their race does not hold them back, and I doubt they would be bigger draws if they were white. Randy is white and doesn’t draw as well as any of them.

    I’ve heard from people at the event that the fans at UFC 117 where asses. Don’t let them cloud your view of the UFC or the US MMA scene as a whole.

  11. BrainSmasher on August 12th, 2010 4:42 PM

    Yeah its OK to cheer for your country during the Olympics or paint a flag on your face during the world cup. But god forbid an American cheer for countrymen so they can have invested interest in a fight to enjoy it more. Evil Americans.

  12. Tony Williams on August 13th, 2010 11:18 AM

    Hi guys,

    Thanks for the new comments. Hopefully, you’re still around to catch my response.

    Diego & BrainSmasher – Thanks for the suggestion. I’m guessing that you both saw Kelsey’s recent piece on the title vs non-title gap. If not, it’s here: http://mmapayout.com/2010/07/the-ppv-gap-title-vs-non-title/. BrainSmasher, I know you saw it since you posted a comment! I’ll give some thought to finding a decent way to addressing title bumps. With the dominant champions in most classes (including BJ Penn until recently), it may be hard to get a number on the title bump. To get at the title bump for a fighter, you would hope to see X buys for a fighter before they’re champion, an increase up to Y buys while champion, and then a drop back down between X and Y buys after the fighter loses the title. LHW seems to be the only weight we could hope to see that, but it’s been plagued by very short title reigns recently which might not provide a good estimate. Anyway, I’ll give it some thought, and you’ll probably see it in a future piece.

    tanner – I didn’t do anything to address the international PPVs. I started with the basic averages because those are the numbers you often see thrown around in media reports. One thing to keep in mind is that many overseas events are broadcast on SpikeTV instead of being on PPV, and those non-PPV events are not included. I was tempted to pull out the international PPVs out of fear they might be punishing certain fighters, but I kept them in because – again – this is how you typically see the numbers reported in the MMA media. It’s definitely worth looking at in the future.

    My hunch – which I haven’t confirmed yet by looking at the data – is that international PPVs do a bit worse because (i) they often air live in the afternoon in the US and then re-air at the normal evening time and (ii) the UFC tends to load those cards with local talent, which may lower the interest among US fans (since they don’t see as many “normal” UFC fighters).

    For one example, UFC 112 from Abu Dhabi did about 525K buys and aired on US PPV at 1pm and 10pm EST. That’s in the range for an Anderson Silva PPV; however, it’s Penn’s lowest since UFC 84, which was a stacked card (Machida-Ortiz, Penn-Sherk II, and W.Silva-Jardine) that aired live from Las Vegas and only did 475K buys.

  13. BrainSmasher on August 14th, 2010 12:33 AM

    Thanks Tony. Look forward to future articles.

  14. Eric Nitsch on August 14th, 2010 7:17 AM

    Tony,
    Great start to your article and I can’t wait to read the future installments. I feel like it would be possible to find a baseline PPV count without any of the top ten draws since 2008, perhaps by averaging the events without any of the top ten in them. It would then be possible to create a PPV factor and assign this to each of the top ten draws. For instance, A. Silva might have a PPVf of 1.6 while Brock Lesnar might have a PPVf of 6.4. It would give an easier to compare figure to the top ten versus the cards without them, and avoid some of the problems associated with above/below the average PPV number fighters. I know that the sample would be small so accuracy of the baseline would be a problem, but with such a young sport no system will be perfect. Keep up the good work

  15. Tony Williams on August 14th, 2010 7:50 AM

    Eric – Excellent suggestion, and it’s where this series is headed. The numbers for the series were finished before the first piece ran, and what you described is the last set of numbers we’ll look at. I may use your idea of the PPV factor in the analysis, though, since it seems like another intuitive way to compare fighters. Thanks!

    For everyone who has offered constructive criticism so far, it’s appreciated, and you’ll see a discussion of many of the problems you’re bringing up in the last part of the series. The numbers you’re seeing here are very simple but still provide us with useful information, at least for addressing some questions.

    I mentioned this in a previous comment, but a big motivation for using something as simple as average PPV buys is that these are the kinds of numbers that I generally see reported in the MMA media. This series is meant to really take a look at those numbers and understand what’s being reported to us, and I’ll try to present some equally simple alternatives – such as the one Eric just suggested – to see if we can get some additional insights.

  16. BrainSmasher on August 15th, 2010 12:31 AM

    Let me get this right. You are suggesting using non top 10 draws to get a UFC PPV baseline number to figure out guys like Anderson actual value? Since Top guys raise the average so much it makes Silva look like he turns people away. It would show that isnt the case in a more accurate way. Is that what is suggested? Sounds good. The problem i think trying to get numbers like that is the constant turn over of draws. I notice there are fighters missing from this list of draws who used to be huge draws and on all the lists. Guys like Franklin(who was never a great draw) and more so Hughes and Tito. Outside of Brock, Tito has had his head in more of the biggest PPV buys than anyone else. His fights with Chuck and Randy and Hughes with Royce will construe the numbers for what is normal UFC baseline.

    Maybe take the 10 lowest PPV buys that don’t have an *Astrix because of it being a UK show or something. Get the average of the 10 events and us it as a baseline for minimum UFC buys. Then get the top guys PPV buys and take out the highest and the lowers. This should help compensate for fighters who piggy backed off another fighter like UFC 100. This should give us an idea what everyone brings to the table for the UFC.

  17. Eric Nitsch on August 15th, 2010 12:25 PM

    I also agree that UFC 100 should be omitted as it is anomalous due to the sheer magnitude of the card.

  18. Tony Williams on August 15th, 2010 3:17 PM

    Eric – I originally ran some of these numbers with and without the cards featuring Lesnar to see how much he swings the numbers since his cards (all of them) are outliers compared to everyone else. You won’t see them in this series, but I can run that analysis quickly and put those results up if Adam and Kelsey are interested. The main problem with dropping a single card is that the criteria seems arbitrary, though I’m certainly open to suggestions about why it might make sense to drop some cards and re-run the numbers (like dropping international cards since they normally air live on PPV at 1pm EST).

    Brain – Yes, that’s the general idea. One way of thinking about a “baseline” is to ask what a UFC card with no star power and little advertising would do, since that gives a good idea of how many buys a PPV gets just because it’s a PPV with the UFC name. One option is to use the WEC PPV, since that was basically marketed as a UFC PPV, though there are some obvious problems with using this as a baseline. Another is to ask how many buys an Ultimate Fight Night on Spike would get if it were put on PPV, since those are cards with known fighters who, typically, just aren’t quite at the top of their weight classes. Unfortunately, that’s only a hypothetical situation, so we don’t have numbers for such an event. A third option is to use the cards without these “top draws” (and I’ll point out again that the list came from Derek Jenkins’ Yahoo! Sports article and wasn’t some list provided by the UFC or by running these numbers for every single potential draw) as a baseline. It’s not perfect, but it’s arguably the best option given our limited set of options.

    Thanks again for the comments! Keep them coming!!

  19. MOSES MALONE on August 17th, 2010 6:28 AM

    ANDERSON SILVA FACES PEOPLE LIKE COTE, LUTTER ,LEITIES,MAIA
    BROCK FACES NAMES LIKE COUTURE, CARWIN, MIR
    ST PIERRE FACES BJ PENN, MATT HUGHES, KOS, FITCH,ALVES

    IT TAKE TWO TO MAKE A FIGHT WORTH BUYING ENOUGH SAID!!!!

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