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Analyzing UFC's 2011 Pay-Per-View Performance With Dave Meltzer

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What explains the 2011 decrease in UFC pay-per-view purchases and where are matters headed in 2012? The top industry expert, Yahoo! Sports' Dave Meltzer, talks to Luke Thomas on MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan.

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After a year of numerous promotional challenges for the UFC - both those self-inflicted and foisted upon them - I wanted to get a sense of what the 2011 pay-per-view numbers for the organization were, what they mean and where both the sport as well as the UFC is headed. To help me distill what accounts for the year-over-year drop in UFC pay-per-view purchases, I was joined last night on MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan by Yahoo! Sports' Dave Meltzer.

In part one of our two-part interview, Meltzer and I talked about the buyrate for UFC 136, whether that number constituted a 'basement' for UFC pay-per-view buyrates, what the loss of Georges St. Pierre will do to UFC 137 and what ratings constitute success for UFC on Fox 1.

Full audio and transcription below:

Luke Thomas: Joining me now on the McDonald's hot line, he is the proprietor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter and also a writer and reporter for Yahoo! Sports, the inimitable Dave Meltzer. Dave, how are you sir?

Dave Meltzer: Good, how are you doing?

Luke Thomas: I'm doing quite well and glad that you spoke to us today. Dave, there's so much to talk about, it's kind of a weird situation. UFC 136, it was estimated by you to have done approximately 250,000 pay-per-view buys. I guess what I'm wondering is, is that number still accurate because I know it's provisional and more importantly, why did it do so poorly in your judgement?

Dave Meltzer: Yeah, I would say the estimate right now is 225-250 [thousand]. There's a lot of reasons, I don't think there's one prevailing reason. I actually did a survey on my own website asking people who usually buy why they didn't and web streaming came up as the strongest reason but there were other reasons. The other strong reasons had to do with the card itself not so much with Edgar and Maynard but just this idea of lack of star power on the card even though I actually thought the card was deeper than most and just basically the overall card itself didn't intrigue people. I think Edgar and Maynard wasn't a match that people go out of their way to see. The second match was great, the draw was a debatable decision so it made sense to bring it back obviously but, and again, I think Edgar and Anthony Pettis, I don't know if it would have done any better or any worse, I just think that Edgar as champion, Edgar as champion is not a draw. Maybe he will at some point but he's not right now and Maynard as challenger wasn't a draw. I think two weeks between shows hurt. I think that was a part of it as well. I think there's just a lot of factors really.

Luke Thomas: Yeah, speak to the latter part. I think a part of it is interest, as you mentioned certainly Edgar has not proven to be the draw that other stars are. Maybe he will become one in time, we'll see but the other one to me seemed cognizance and I don't have any hard data but anecdotally, I was in Denver to cover UFC 135 and I saw some friends there and they happened to be in D.C. the weekend of UFC 136 and these are guys who paid for tickets to go to UFC 135 and they had no idea that UFC 136 even existed. To what extent did UFC 135 and I don't know about UFC 136 per se, but if you put two weeks back to back like that, doesn't one show sort of trample the other or am I misreading that?

Dave Meltzer: I think generally you're right. I know historically in pro wrestling when they've done that, it's been the case virtually every time and with UFC, I think that when you have two shows really close together and one's a real big one, the second one is going to get hurt. I don't know that 135 was a real big one, but it was a bigger one than this one. I absolutely think that's a factor. I think two weeks between shows under any circumstances, I think three weeks should be a minimum. I know the way they've got their schedule done but I think they paid the price for that. I don't think people are ready. You don't see the commercials for that one. You're just getting done with one show and now you get two weeks of commercials, I think you probably need more than two weeks, you probably need three weeks to build up a fight.

Also, Aldo and Florian, the reality is, we all knew going into this year that featherweights and bantamweights weren't going to draw at first. They have to establish the guys as stars and they have to kind of establish the weight class. I was thinking that two championship matches, that's pretty strong. Sonnen and Brian Stann at the top is actually stronger than most but the reality is people didn't see either of those title matches as being that strong and Sonnen versus Stann wasn't really promoted that hard because all the focal points were on the two title matches. Aldo, I think people don't know Jose Aldo. I know he's super talented but they just don't know him yet and they're not really into that championship.

I don't know that promoting Stann and Sonnen harder would have made a difference, but I do know from the anecdotal and end poll that I did on my own site, the fight that people were most interested in was Sonnen and Stann and not Edgar and Maynard. To me, that is kinda evidence that sometimes you have championship fights, I'm not saying that they shouldn't be in the main event slot but you should promote that as hard or harder. The UFC has shown many, many times Lesnar and Mir's first fight, Shamrock and Ortiz's second fight were both non-title matches I believe and they were obviously the money matches on those shows and both of those shows had heavyweight title matches on the card I remember with Tim Sylvia with in both cases. I remember people saying, "Oh, it's unfair, they should promote the heavyweight championship, not this non-title match but the reality is if they put all their efforts into the heavyweight title matches and ignore the non-title match, they wouldn't have done any business for either of those shows. This is not quite at that level but maybe that might have made a little bit of a difference and maybe not. The two weeks between shows was a real key element, though. I'm positive of that.

Luke Thomas: For sure, and I guess I want to take a look back, I don't have the numbers in front of me but you're sort of the authority on what numbers do exist. 225-250, when was the last time a show, a UFC, this one even had an expo, when was the last time a show pulled in those numbers? Was it Aldo-Faber? When was the last time?

Dave Meltzer: Aldo-Faber was a WEC show and yeah, it pulled in numbers at that level but at that point the Aldo-Faber numbers were considered a huge success at that time. You're talking about a UFC show. I think a couple of the overseas shows, I think the Matt Hughes - Thiago Alves fight didn't do particularly well but again, they're overseas and it's a different kind of promoting. They were on live in the middle of the afternoon. I think, you've got to go back, I couldn't tell you far back, I think UFC 51, I haven't looked it up myself. It's been since '06, there hasn't been a show whether alone a show with two championship matches because historically, championship matches matter and this one had two and it did a poor number. I will say this. I didn't think anyone expected big numbers out of this show, but it did surprise me.

Luke Thomas: It's a new basement. I guess what I'm trying to get at, I remember when Thiago Silva fought Rashad Evans and that card had been absolutely ravaged by injuries, it was almost comical the injuries they had to deal with to make that event happen and it still did something around 300,000 pay-per-view buys.

Dave Meltzer: I think it did more than that and that was a surprise because I thought at that time, "Okay, we're gonna find out what rock bottom was and I think rock bottom at that time was like 350," so you're talking about rock bottom dropping quite a bit. Too many shows on pay-per-view, bad economy, but we've had a bad economy for a couple years. I think there is that to it and it takes time for overexposure to set in like with pro wrestling for example. They increased the number of shows on pay-per-view.

At one point they were two companies running monthly and for a while they were doing really good but after a while, you'd start to see one company drop to nothing after a couple years and then the other company ended up going down a couple of years later and then in boxing you had the reverse. If you remember boxing we had all kinds of pay-per-views and then we really got down to where they started putting a lot better fights on HBO and you had fewer boxing pay-per-views but the major boxing pay-per-views started doing great numbers. So is it better to have 13, 14, 15 shows and then you slowly decrease or have four or five shows that do better? The reality is you'll make more money with more shows but at the same time, you start eroding your base where you have this deal when you start having people thinking, "I can skip this show, I can skip that show." Once you start thinking, "I can skip this show," you start missing a lot more shows after a while.

Luke Thomas: Yeah, but are they even making more money? If you look at overall pay-per-view buyrates relative to last year or year over year, they're down. We still have Overeem-Lesnar but I think with GSP out, it's possible we could have a pay-per-view this year not even exceed one million. Are they just comfortable with the idea that they can be profitable at 250,000 pay-per-view buys and that's fine? What am I missing?

Dave Meltzer: There's still profitable with 250,000 so it's ok, but the thing is, it's not about this year. This year, they're gonna be fine. I'm sure they're not happy with the year, but the reality is they were snakebit this year. If you look at all the big fights they were thinking of, Sonnen-Silva, Rashad Evans and Jon Jones, GSP and Nick Diaz, Lesnar and Junior and the winner against Cain which ended up being a TV fight instead of a pay-per-view fight and Lesnar didn't even fight anyway. You're talking about the shows that would have ended up making the biggest money and I'm not saying that any of those would have done a million but they all would have done big, big money. None of them happened and they were all scheduled at one point or talked about. There was Lesnar-Mir at one point even. They've been snakebit and that's the overriding reason for this year and that, when you talk about the numbers being down from last year compared to this year. Alot of that I don't worry about because a lot of that was just the reality of how things went down but when you have a number like this one number, I'm concerned when a number is a lot lower than what I would have expected going in.

Usually, the numbers for years were higher than I would have expected going and I'd be like, "Man, I'm so conservative on this," and now all of a sudden, me, who's conservative on buyrate predictions is up, is well above, that's telling me there's an erosion going on. The erosion at the bottom is more telling than the fact that we didn't have any millions this year because I know why we didn't have any millions this year because the ones that would have been all fell apart. That wasn't UFC's fault, it wasn't even overexposure or anything, that's just these fights didn't happen.

Luke Thomas: Let's talk about this Cain Velasquez - Junior dos Santos fight. Dana White has gone on the record and I think you even reported this Dave with the Yahoo! pages, maybe I'm mistaken but he said, "Listen, this isn't even part of our four-fight deal that kicks in in January. This is sort of like a, something akin to a trial run. They don't have any baseline numbers in mind." Two questions about that. One, do you really believe that they don't have any baseline numbers in mind? They must be open to experimentation, I can see this being a fact-finding mission but I do think they might have some idea of what constitutes success or not and secondly, do they, is the Pacquiao fight. I think initially, I even asked this at the press conference, "My god! You're going head-to-head with Pacquiao," and obviously they're not going head-to-head with Pacquiao. It seems to me that they're using this as an opportunity to sort of like ride the coattails of the Pacquaio phenomenon and just position themselves next to it as the free alternative before Pacquiao fights. So can you comment on both, one, about the Pacquiao part and two, whether or not there is some idea of what numbers this sort of show should pull?

Dave Meltzer: No one has given anything publically. I'm sure they want to at least beat the CBS numbers that Kimbo did. I think if they don't do that then I think everyone will be disappointed but as far as doing a 3.0 or a 4.0, I don't know. I think this is like an experiment. The key to ratings short term is the advertizing you can bring in and right now, this show has done very well as far as selling out ads so that's a positive going in but of course if the rating isn't as good then the next show won't do as well with ads. I think that if they do well with males 18-34 which is probably more important than the overall rating because they're targeting advertizing with the type of cars and shave gel, I'm guessing that's the type of ads you'll see with this show when the show comes up. I think that that demo number is the most important thing. That's a tough demo number. It's tough on Saturdya night. It's tough anywhere because it varies so much. You just don't know, it's hard to predict. I can't even give you a thing other than I think that if the shows does under a 2.8, that would be not good. I think it'll beat it but it's hard for me to tell right now. I don't think we're really gonna have a feel until the last week before the show and how much buzz it gets and how much pub it gets. So on that regard, what was the other thing you asked about?

Luke Thomas: Yeah, sort of positioning itself as a sort of free alternative before the Pacquiao fights, will that help it?

Dave Meltzer: I think so. I think the idea that you go in there, you sit down because it's going to go live everywhere. I  think on the West Coast, we're looking at a 6-7 pm timeslot. That's not really very good. That may hurt it. The rest of the country, in Eastern and Central, that's what they normally have for primetime and everything. If you've got a bunch of guys over and you want to watch the Pacquiao fight, I can see you going, "Hey, we'll watch this for free before the Pacquiao fight."

At the same time, I think it probably does go head to head with the actual Pacquiao pay-per-view, just not the actual fight itself. You may have people saying, we're gonna buy this pay-per-view and we're gonna watch the Pacquiao hype and all that with him coming to the ring and the boxing prelims that no one pays attention to anyways. It could go both ways but I think it'll help them. It'll call attention to the night. The last weekend before the show, there's gonna be a lot of stories, the idea of these two shows and I think the MMA show is gonna get more publicity and more talk because of those stories than they would have got otherwise so I think it helps.

Luke Thomas: Let's say on UFC 137. Losing Georges St. Pierre who has the highest buyrate this year and it might be debatable but  at UFC 135 Dana White said he's the company's biggest pay-per-view star. Either way, it's a big devastating loss in terms of promotional value to lose George St. Pierre. I'm curious about your pay-per-view expectations. Some people are saying, "Well B.J. Penn has some of the best buyrates in UFC history as a lightweight which is true but it hasn't happened in a long time. After the fight in Australia, the two losses to Edgar, he's not putting up what he once was and it's almost like between he and Diaz, a compliment contest. There's absolutely no buzz between their fight except for this sort of merry-go-round story between GSP, Diaz and Condit. Your expectations, how high can UFC 137 go in terms of pay-per-view buys.

Dave Meltzer: I think it's gonna be in the ballpark of a lot of the Tito Ortiz-Rashad Evans type of number or the Faber-Cruz type of number. If we're talking, I think 275-325 type of range, kinda like where a lot of the fights were. I just don't, because again, it's B.J. Penn who can be a draw with the right opponent and I think Diaz can as well but I just haven't seen the great hype and maybe it will come in the last week but I think losing Georges off the card, I'm gonna throw out a number because I figured this. I think losing GSP cost UFC eight and a half million on the show in one night. That's how bad it is.

Luke Thomas: You mean pay-per-view and ticket sales? What do you mean?

Dave Meltzer: Ticket sales, I don't know because they're already sold out. There are some refunds so I don't know but again, how extensive those refunds, I don't know until Dana gives the number at the end so I was just talking pay-per-view buys. I think it's gonna cost them eight and a half million in pay-per-view buys from a 650 to a 300 [thousand] type of drop in that range.

In part two, Meltzer discusses the 2011 schedule of 34 UFC events. Check back tomorrow with MMA Nation for our continued discussion on this topic.