By Zach Arnold | November 8, 2013
— MMA Supremacy (@MMASupremacy) November 7, 2013
In my Thursday column on Fightline, I laid out the numerous challenges Bellator is facing when it comes to expanding their horizons to PPV. The biggest challenge is that they are trying to convince fans to pay for a product that they often see for “free” on cable. In other words, when you condition fans to watch your product for free, you’re going to have a hell of a time convincing them to pay for a show. That’s what Viacom is hoping they can convince MMA fans of doing in 2014.
Part of the problem Viacom faces is that Bellator has weekly MMA programming. UFC has a glut of programming on Fox Sports 1. The ratings for Bellator shows have yo-yo’d up-and-down. On FS1, UFC programming has drawn mediocre numbers outside of the Chael Sonnen fight in Boston. That fight drew 1.8 million viewers.
At stake are a few issues. First, even with a heavy glut of MMA programming on cable, you can still pop a solid number if fans are convinced that the fight you are pushing is the real deal. This is why Bellator was able to score with Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez despite their low profile name value to the masses. It’s why UFC did so well with the Sonnen fight when FS1 launched.
Second, there is an impact on TV ratings when it comes to the amount of programming. Simply put, there are so many shows that fans are picking and choosing what events to watch. This is a real phenomena amongst MMA fans. You can’t treat MMA fans like traditional sports fans because they aren’t. Many are pro-wrestling fans who watch one or two other sports. Pro-wrestling fans are used to watching episodic television on a weekly basis and are conditioned to tune into a certain time and channel. The problem with MMA is that you don’t see the same fighters week to week. So, there’s a lot more fickleness going on here. So, as there’s been more supply of MMA programming on cable, the ratings generally have gone down for shows that fans don’t perceive as important.
Right now, a lot of UFC’s C-level and B-level shows are not drawing on Fox Sports 1 because the fans don’t perceive the fights to be important enough to watch. The Ultimate Fighter experiment with Ronda Rousey has fallen off the tracks. DVR or not, the live numbers are not very good. I think a solid reason behind this, besides the fact that the show has ran its course, is that the Fox Sports 1 brand is absolutely driving negatives for UFC. The channel stinks. There’s not much programming you want to watch on the network. The graphics and presentation feel second-rate for their Sportscenter-type shows. It feels like a chore for me to watch FS1 as opposed to ESPN. I don’t want to watch FS1 on a regular basis. I have zero emotional attachment to the network and I think a lot of sports fans feel the same way. Same with NBC Sports Network except for the fact that they went all-in with the English Premier League and the gamble has paid off.
So, with the lower cable ratings for many of the UFC shows, the ratings tend to suffer when fans don’t perceive the fights as important to watch. Which leads to a bigger problem — the impact on PPV numbers.
Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman drew 525,000 PPV buys and since that point it’s been malaise city for the UFC. They need big numbers from Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva in the next two months or else the 2013 PPV campaign will close out with a whimper for UFC.
Part of the reason why the numbers are down on PPV is because there’s so much content available on cable that the motivation to pay for a fight is not as great if you perceive the PPV fights to be only slightly above the quality that you see on the cable shows. So, UFC has double trouble on this front — many of their cable shows are drawing fewer viewers because fans perceive the fights to not be important enough to watch and they hate FS1 as a channel. That in turn means that you’re getting fewer eyeballs for the prelim barker shows that are supposed to sell PPVs. When UFC went from Spike TV to FX, there was a decrease in viewers but still respectable numbers. The drop off from FX to FS1 has really hurt. I honestly thought that UFC’s gamble of taking a hit on ratings in exchange for building leverage over Fox would pay off. I’m having second thoughts about that strategy right now.
The difference between Bellator and UFC is the fact that Fox is paying UFC over $90 million a year for TV rights while Viacom is budgeting $50k-60k per Spike TV show. Hard for Bellator to gain steam when you don’t have a lot of money to spend and can’t afford to get into bidding wars. Well, Viacom can afford to do it but choose not to do it because they want to stay in the MMA space but on the cheap.
Bellator is facing the same challenges as UFC is now but only on a grander scale. They have to convince fans who have been watching them for “free” to finally pay for a product. I am not sure if the Long Beach card was exactly enough to convince MMA fans that Bellator PPV quality is worth dishing out $60. The additional challenge Bellator faces is drawing live gates that can finance the undercards. MMA Weekly reports that Bellator drew 6,600 in Long Beach with 4,200 paid. It sure didn’t look like 6,600 on camera. The original goal heading into the show was to have 8,000 in the building. They need the PPVs to come across as major events on television.
Although Bellator has a lot of questions heading into their 2014 campaign, at least I have a sense about where things are headed for the company. Whether it will succeed or not, who knows. As for UFC, Fox Sports 1 is turning out to be quicksand for the promotion. If the numbers don’t come back strong to close out the 2013 campaign, then I think there are a lot of questions that will need to asked by Zuffa as to where things are headed in 2014. The Super Bowl 2014 weekend card with Renan Barao vs. Dominick Cruz and Jose Aldo vs. Ricardo Lamas is WEC-level drawing power in Newark. They could have booked Alexander Gustafsson vs. Jon Jones in a rematch here. Instead, Gustafsson will face Jimi Manuwa in London this March.
The only constant we know with the UFC is that they’re continuing to let the testosterone flow, as both Vitor Belfort & Dan Henderson will be using the magic T heading into their Saturday fight. Of course, both men now claim that they don’t need to use testosterone to keep fighting… and yet the athletic commissions and promoters continue to rubber stamp the anabolic steroid usage. I wonder why.