By Raphael Garcia
A running theme throughout 2014 has been the UFC's lack of star power. Despite names like Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey on the current active roster, the strength of the promotion’s brand at this point in time continues to be questioned. Because the UFC's divisional champions are charged with carrying much of the promotional load, when you look at the figures from 2014 and compare them to those in the past, it's clear that the organization is facing a difficult time where its headliners are concerned.
In the world of combat sports, star power is measured in four ways: live gates, attendance, ratings, and pay-per-view buys. Whenever a post-fight press conference is held, among the first bits of information that UFC President Dana White provides to media are the event’s gate and attendance. Ratings and PPV numbers are also important. When those figures come out in the days and weeks that follow an event, the conversation focuses on whether the show is a success or failure. The individuals that appeared on the card -- most notably the two fighters that are paired in the main event -- will be credited or blamed for that event’s success or failure, and those fighters will often be tagged with labels that have the potential to follow them throughout their careers.
Ronda Rousey is often described by UFC President Dana White as the biggest name in the sport today. With multiple movies and other extracurricular activities on tap, one would expect her to draw the biggest numbers of the lot. However, her main event bout at UFC 170 cracked 350K buys, much lower than the 450K she hit during her UFC debut at UFC 157.
The promotion has taken to pairing Rousey with Chris Weidman in an effort to build them both into consistent PPV draws. They both defended their championships at UFC 168, which brought in just over 1 million buys, and UFC 175 has been booked in a similar fashion, though they will each be facing lesser-known (but just as tough) opposition in the main and co-main event.
Unfortunately for the folks at the UFC, Weidman, Rousey, and Jones represent less than half of their championship staff. The other members of the group struggle to crack 300K PPV buys on a consistent basis.
Jose Aldo, who's held a title the longest of the group, hit 330K for UFC 156 against Frankie Edgar, but his bout against Chan Sung Jung at UFC 163 drew well below that figure. Cain Velasquez broke 300K twice in 2013, but the heavyweight champion struggles to stay healthy enough to compete. Johny Hendricks’ fight with Georges St. Pierre drew, at 630K, the lowest buyrate of GSP’s entire title reign, and Hendricks’ title fight with Robbie Lawler only managed to garner 300K. Anthony Pettis was expected to make the jump and be a fighter that Dana White could build on, but the one event he headlined hit 270K buys. However, he is expected to face Gilbert Melendez later this year after a full season of The Ultimate Fighter, which should greatly boost his name recognition and drawing power.
That leaves TJ Dillashaw and Demetrious Johnson. Of the two, TJ seems to have more potential star power than DJ. Johnson headlined UFC 174, and while he put on a dominating fight against Ali Bagautinov, fans were reportedly leaving the arena before his showcase was over. Furthermore, recent rumors suggest that the pay-per-view only garnered an abysmal 100,000 buys. Johnson’s first three title defenses were offered on the Fox network in an effort to build up his stature as a titleholder, and while that strategy doesn’t seem to have worked, Dillashaw should get the same treatment, and be afforded a similar opportunity to build up name recognition on the UFC’s largest platform.
So what does that mean for the UFC as it looks to build up the drawing power of its fighters?
Strategy is key in developing these champions into stars that people will want to watch. The Ultimate Fighter played a key role in successfully building anticipation for the Rousey vs. Tate rematch that many fans pined for. With Pettis and Melendez coaching against each other on the 20th season of TUF, it will be interesting to see whether they can create the type of rivalry to attract fan interest, and turn them into stars capable of drawing 400K+ buys each time out.
Using the reality show as a platform to build these fighters’ brands is a dangerous proposition, however. The taping of these seasons often force the fighters out of action for extended periods of time, and those prolonged periods of inactivity may have an adverse effect on drawing power, as out of sight is often out of mind. Using free televised events on Fox Sports 1 and “Big Fox” to build up these athletes is the approach that the promotion is currently taking, but it’s possible that the multitude of events has slowly begun to wear on the casual fight fan. And even if cutting back would help, that’s not part of the UFC's current plan for “world domination,” which includes more and more “doubleheader” days with two events in two countries within the same 24-hour period.
We're more than halfway through 2014, and the UFC still hasn't been able to solve its problem of dwindling star power. This time of year tends to be the most busy for the promotion, as it puts on a slew of shows that feature the best fighters the organization has to offer. However, there’s no guarantee that the title belts around UFC champions’ waists lead to lucrative returns at the gates. The final numbers will ultimately tell the tale, but based on recent trends, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will have to reassess the way its titleholders are currently featured, because simply wearing gold doesn’t mean their stars will shine.