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Volume 20 No. 46
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A losing venture for UFC and its fans

When UFC President Dana White announced that UFC 151 was canceled due to future hall of famer Dan Henderson’s torn MCL and Jon “Bones” Jones’ refusal to fight Chael Sonnen (Henderson’s proposed replacement), fans and fighters alike expressed their resentment to Jones and the organization via the social media outlets. Understandably, White and the UFC brass recognized that the undercard wasn’t strong enough to entice fans to spend $50 or $60 (HD) on a pay-per-view main event featuring the likes of Jake Ellenberger and Jay Hieron.

As a result of the league’s first cancellation of an entire PPV card, millions of dollars of PPV and gate revenue were lost, sponsorship agreements were potentially strained and the league’s tenuous relationship with their core fans may have worsened. After anticipating a matchup between one of the sport’s pound-for-pound best (Jones) versus an all-time legend (Henderson), fans were inevitably left with nothing. Event ticket holders were able to return their tickets to the place of purchase for a full refund, but those unfortunate few who had already purchased the PPV will have to seek refunds via their cable or satellite provider.

Still, issues with fans don’t even begin to scratch the surface of what the fighters on the undercard have experienced. After training for the past several months for payouts that pale in comparison to those of UFC PPV headliners (some as low as $5,000), they’re now forced to continue training until given the opportunity to fight again on another event card. To date, the only fight to be officially rescheduled was the matchup of Ellenberger vs. Hieron on FX 5. For the other displaced combatants, even White stated he wasn’t sure of the repercussions for those who were scheduled to fight at UFC 151.

So this poses the question, outside of potential scheduling constraints, could the league have offered UFC 151 as a free event on Fox or sister network FX? The UFC’s 2011 deal with Fox was agreed upon in part to propel the sport forward. If the league would have moved the card to Fox or FX, not only would the league not have lost its site fee (Mandalay Bay Events Center) and all of its gate revenue, but it could have continued with its numbered events (e.g., 151), given the fans what they wanted, and continued to pay the fighters on the undercard.

When dealing with an individual combat sport such as MMA, injuries occur. Unlike in the past where injured headlining fighters were substituted with suitable replacements, the league stands to lose future PPV and gate revenues when fighters are now increasingly given options relative to whether they elect to fight a given opponent. Similarly, the league also stands to lose fringe fans if they feel as if the best fighters aren’t fighting each other — a factor that is supposed to be a distinguishing element between the UFC and professional boxing — and the undercards are not worthy of purchasing. And if recent reported UFC PPVs purchased are any indication of the league’s future PPV sales (150: 190,000 buys; 149: 235,000; 147: 140,000, lowest since 2005), then its primary revenue stream could be on a downward slope.

With the PPV model in place and the uncertainties surrounding an individual fighter’s health and decision-making abilities, the lesser-known fighters of UFC PPV event undercards will lose their respective purses when this happens again, the UFC will lose both PPV and gate revenue (if future events are canceled) and, perhaps more debilitating, fans will lose interest.

For now, UFC light heavyweight champion Jones is slated to defend his title against former champion Vitor Belfort at UFC 152 on Sept. 22 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. This matchup was agreed upon after reportedly the two best contenders for the title after Henderson (Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Lyoto Machida) both said no to the fight. With so much uncertainty seemingly surrounding each UFC PPV event, fans will have to strongly consider if they’ll actually get to pay to view a fight.

Lamar Reams
Norfolk, Va.

Reams is an assistant professor in the sport management program at Old Dominion University.