The Greatest MMA News Column 12.17.13: UFC's 2014 Outlook
Posted by Dan Plunkett on 12.17.2013
News and thoughts on Georges St-Pierre's leave of absence, what it means for UFC, what their 2014 will look like and what changes they will need to make, UFC on Fox 9 results, new weight class, Hendricks vs. Lawler, and more!
The UFC, Post-GSP
After vocalizing his need for a break following his controversial decision victory over Johny Hendricks last month, Georges St-Pierre vacated his welterweight championship on Friday and announced a leave of absence from mixed martial arts competition.
A leave, or even retirement, was St-Pierre's best option. At 32, St-Pierre's abilities had clearly slipped over his past four bouts. Even so, he was completely dominant until the Hendricks bout, which came down to a close first round. If St-Pierre never steps foot in the cage again, his legacy as one of the greatest fighters of all-time is set.
For nearly a decade, St-Pierre has been fighting and beating top competition. He has avenged, quite soundly, both official losses on his record. His nine title defenses ranks just one behind Anderson Silva for the top spot in major MMA history. While Silva is rightfully considered the greatest fighter in MMA history, St-Pierre was more consistent in fighting and beating – usually in completely dominant fashion – top level competition.
For the UFC, St-Pierre is going to be costly. For the past few years, St-Pierre had been the company's biggest pay-per-view and live gate draw by leaps and bounds. The biggest St-Pierre fight of the year garnered an estimated 400,000 more purchases than the biggest fight of any other fighter in the roster.
At the beginning of 2013, UFC looked to have four legitimate PPV draws. First was St-Pierre, now gone. Second was Anderson Silva, now coming off a loss to Chris Weidman. Third was Jon Jones, now coming off a fight that only managed a disappointing 325,000 sales. Then there was Cain Velasquez, now coming off a fight that did 330,000 buys against who should have been his best drawing opponent. The only new draw established this year was Ronda Rousey, who drew an estimated 450,000 buys for her UFC debut bout with media attention at the level of a million buy fight.
UFC will start 2014 without St-Pierre and Velasquez, who won't be available until late in the year due to injury. Silva's future, both as a fighter and a draw, hinges on his December 28 bout against Chris Weidman. A loss there could feasibly be it for Silva, though he claims he has no plans to retire win or lose, and his drawing power would be significantly damaged. Rousey, 26, has hinted she may not be long for the sport, although she has given no indication her career will wind down within a year.
As for UFC's other champions and star fighters, prospects don't look great. Lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, who has real star potential, is out with a knee injury and seems to be injury prone in general. Featherweight champion Jose Aldo has never been a PPV star. Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz finally returns in February to face interim champion Renan Barao, but that show doesn't figure to do well. The winner of that fight should face Urijah Faber, who is the company's biggest star in the men's bantamweight ranks, but even a Faber championship bout would be unlikely to reach 300,000 buys in the current climate. Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson continues to turn in impressive performances in front of big audiences on Fox, but it hasn't seemed to make him a bigger star. The welterweight title will be decided in March when Hendricks faces Robbie Lawler. Both came across as stars in career-best performances last month, but pay-per-view stars aren't made in one night.
Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva have a blood feud that would be a guaranteed seller in a different time, but as time has progressed, so has uncertainty. Rashad Evans can draw major numbers against the right opponent, but elsewhere draws basement numbers. Daniel Cormier, his February opponent, is closer to the latter than the former. Vitor Belfort drew exceedingly well in his first middleweight championship bout, and depending on his opponent in his upcoming title shot, may draw well again.
These are times of incredible change for the UFC. Not only are the faces at the top of the UFC changing from the familiar ones at sat atop their divisions for years, the business is moving, slowly but surely, away from traditional pay-per-view. Television rights, both domestically and internationally, have increased dramatically for the UFC over the past couple of years. UFC will shortly be launching an online network in its three largest pay-per-view markets and New Zealand – a move that shouldn't be viewed as merely a way for UFC to get fans to pay for the lowest level live events possible, but rather the first small step towards their goal of broadcasting their major matches through the Internet, where revenue doesn't have to be split with cable and satellite companies. The success or failure of that online network, as well as PPV results for the upcoming transitional year, will push them in a direction that will change how UFC fights are consumed.
UFC kicked off 2013 with a string of events that turned in stronger than expected PPV and television numbers. Next year will be a different story. It may take until April, when Jon Jones is scheduled to face Glover Teixeira, for the company to break 300,000. What became the traditional means of promoting PPVs on Spike – the Countdown and Primetime shows – have long been rendered useless. Promo spots can be slipped into live television events, but those aren't attracting the viewership numbers they used to. The January 25 Fox special will likely do similarly poor numbers to this past Saturday's, and the Fight Nights scheduled for Fox Sports 1 don't promise better numbers than the disappointing recent ones.
It's abundantly clear UFC needs to create more stars, and to do so they are going to need to make some changes to what should be their most valuable airtime. Fox events have largely failed to make stars. At least some of that can be blamed on the promotion of those cards. The major benefit of having these fall and winter Fox specials is the cross promotion during highly-rated NFL programming. For this past Saturday's special, the event and main event fighters were mentioned and a graphic would pop up on the screen, but there wasn't a big deal made about a championship match on free TV nor one of the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world fighting.
Had it been Jon Jones fighting on the card, Fox would have made a big deal about it. That's how they should treat someone like Demetrious Johnson. He may not have the Q Score of Jon Jones, but that level of awareness is built by treating him like a major star. The obvious excuse for someone like Johnson's lack of star power – his short stature and lack of exciting finishes (well, before Saturday I guess) – is invalid because there is always an angle to sell. UFC has always struggled to figure out how to promote fighters when his or her skill set doesn't translate nicely into a highlight backed by "Face the Pain." Very simply, treating someone like a major star will at least make them some level of a star and make their match into a bigger event.
Furthermore, the Fox events don't lend nearly enough time to building personalities. Fox and UFC always seem to be rushing to get the show over as soon as possible so the local news can go on as close as possible to normal time. Post-fight interviews, a potentially very valuable space (which fighters too often let go to waste), are usually abandoned for anything but the main event. The banter between Chad Mendes and Nik Lentz stole the show at the pre-fight press conference, but the majority of the Fox audience wasn't shown that. Those two hours on Fox could be very valuable, but going from one fight to the next, with 15-20 commercials in between, doesn't tap into that value. Three scheduled fights, as opposed to the current four, would allow more time to tell stories and get fighters over with the television audience.
Prior to each Fox show a Countdown like special airs on the network following the fighters on the card. The value of that special is questionable; I would imagine much of the audience is made up for people who plan to watch the live show anyway. That airtime would be far more valuable to the UFC if used for a special building to a PPV, but it would be Fox's call.
UFC on Fox 9 thoughts. Overnight ratings were bad at 2.41 million viewers and a 1.0 in Adults 18-49. That will go up once the west coast feed is factored in, but not significantly because the show didn't run over the top of the hour by very much. It will end up being the lowest rated UFC on Fox show during football season by a good amount. I didn't see or hear about anyone predicting a first round knockout for Demetrious Johnson, or really a knockout in general. He's had an incredible year with three title defenses. Urijah Faber showed once again how silly it was for people to question all of the title shots he has received. He earned another one Saturday night with his fourth win in a row. Chad Mendes was underwhelming against Nik Lentz, but considering he was ill it was impressive. Joe Lauzon performed as well as expected.
UFC introducing strawweight class. I wonder if the division will officially be called "strawweight" or "women's strawweight." Probably the latter, but I motion for it to be "strawweight" and an eventual men's version to be "men's strawweight." It's only fair. Now that we have semantics out of the way, UFC made a deal with Invicta and received twelve strawweight fighters. The women will compete on the fall 2013 season of The Ultimate Fighter with the winner becoming the division's champion. I'd say ratings should improve for that season, given the women make TUF feel like a fresher show, but there are two TUF's between now and that season, so even more people may be sick of the show by then.
Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler for welterweight title at UFC 171. A lot of people were disappointed Carlos Condit didn't get the title shot over Robbie Lawler and they have a point. Condit's March bout against Hendricks, a close decision loss, only left people wanting more. Still, Lawler isn't undeserving of the title shot after three impressive performances. I doubt many people believed Lawler would ever fight for a UFC after his loss to Lorenz Larkin. Hendricks is favored in the fight and rightfully so. It could be a firefight, or perhaps Hendricks will look to grapple.
UFC 168 price hike a one-time deal. The call to raise the price by $5 was apparently made by Lorenzo Fertitta. At this point, it's being treated as a one-time deal, though no real reason was given for the increase ("because we can make more money doing it," probably isn't something fans would want to hear). In 2006 UFC raised the price of UFC 57 and claimed it was just for that show, but when the show did record business all UFC PPVs adopted the higher price point beginning at UFC 59. I don't think the increase will hurt UFC 168 and it is likely the correct business move. However, it would hurt PPVs that don't have a match as big as Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman and Ronda Rousey fighting below that, but that is probably something UFC realizes.
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