Let’s be real, nobody expected UFC 215 or UFC 216 to be successful pay-per-view outings for the UFC. However, with the recent revelation by combat sports journalist Dave Meltzer that neither event sold over 120,000 pay-per-views it might be time to reconsider the viability of pay-per-view. Perhaps it is time that the UFC refocused their efforts on their streaming service: UFC Fight Pass. To put the UFC’s current pay-per-view woes into context, the UFC last experienced regular sub-120,000 buys in mid-2005. Simply put the UFC has not had such pitiful pay-per-view output since they broke into the sports mainstream.
The reason for the UFC’s recent pay-per-view futility is well documented. More than anything else, the UFC has suffered from a significant lack of bankable stars. Despite their best efforts the UFC has failed to produce an organic draw. With their recent struggles in mind, solving the UFC’s pay-per-view crisis is no easy task. The solution might be as drastic as de-emphasizing the UFC’s commitment to traditional pay-per-view in favor of UFC Fight Pass. Migrating much of the UFC’s pay-per-view events to a streaming platform is a theoretical solution to a tangible problem.
Now if you are reading this and feel like I have stolen this idea, you are absolutely correct! In fact, I am taking the idea from the UFC’s reluctant cousin, the WWE. In 2014, the WWE launched an over-the-top streaming service that included their monthly pay-per-view events along with their catalog of past pay-per-views. The service known as the WWE Network is offered at a monthly rate of $9.99. Essentially the WWE took the risk of forsaking pay-per-view revenue, in hopes of making up the loss in monthly subscribers. Three years later the results of the WWE Network are mixed. While they have been able to maintain a solid base of subscribers, growth has been slower than expected.
Now as it pertains to the UFC, the situation is not entirely comparable. While the UFC is in a legitimate pay-per-view rut, they are only one year removed from rolling out five events that drew over 1 million buys. By comparison, in 2014 the WWE could only hover around the 1 million buy landmark during their annual WrestleMania extravaganza. One could argue that WWE’s pay-per-view business was beyond repair in 2014. In 2017 the UFC is not at that level yet, but they can take actions to prevent reaching such a dire situation.
Unlike the WWE, the UFC can usher in an era of streaming major events without completely dumping their major pay-per-view events. Even in the barren wasteland that is 2017, UFC 214 did 850,000 buys, while UFC 217 will likely be a very successful endeavor. The UFC should not abandon the upside of these events. The answer may lie somewhere in the middle. If the UFC is insistent on putting on 40+ events per year, do twelve of them really need to cost $60?
Of course, the UFC is a private business and the public is not privy to their financial well-being. From the outside it is unknown how the UFC would benefit from 100,000 customers paying $60 as opposed to 300,000 streaming customers paying $20 for a monthly streaming service. However, it is not a reach to assume that UFC 215 would have gained a significant audience from lower priced streaming consumers.
If 2017 combat sports have taught us anything, it is that people will pay for mega-events but are reluctant to shell out significant money for unheralded fight cards. This premise is illustrated by the success of major boxing bouts in 2017. Pay-per-view as a whole is not dead, but consistent pay-per-view purchasing may be a thing of the past. In no world should the UFC put a Conor McGregor fight on a streaming service, but a Demetrius Johnson fight would feel less out of place on UFC Fight Pass.
The UFC does not need to take an all or nothing approach to UFC Fight Pass, but it is clear that the UFC should be more innovative in the future. If the UFC cannot produce the next Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey, perhaps they should alter the way we view the sport.
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