Ultimate Fighting Championship’s decades-long transformation into a mainstream sports attraction culminates Saturday in Las Vegas with UFC 200 – a pay-per-view event officials are touting as one of the biggest fight cards in company history, and a key moment in the organization’s bid to expand to new heights.
Casino moguls Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta bought UFC for just $2 million in 2001. Fifteen years later, the company is purportedly drawing bids from prospective buyers in excess of $4 billion. Aside from pay-per-view and ticket revenue, UFC has a television rights deal with FOX Sports worth a reported $700 million and an ever-expanding crop of fighters garnering mainstream attention.
UFC 200, set to take place at the brand new, 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena on the Las Vegas Strip, features some of mixed martial arts’ biggest stars, including reigning women’s bantamweight champion Miesha Tate and enigmatic heavyweight Brock Lesnar. It’s also a crucial opportunity for UFC – months before its long-awaited return to New York City and amid rumors of a potential sale – to show its mettle on the national stage.
“It’s certainly an important milestone. I think it shows how far the sport has come. In order to be able to do that, we need [a roster] of quality fighters, of elite fighters, of guys that are willing to take themselves to that next level and raise the sport in the process,” Kenny Florian, a former UFC fighter and co-host of “UFC Tonight” on FOX Sports 1, told FOXBusiness.com. “We’ve seen stars born in a short amount of time – Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor. You can just see it getting to that next level, year-in and year-out.”
UFC 200 was expected to challenge the company’s all-time record for PPV buys. But the last-minute revelation that Jon “Bones” Jones would not compete in Saturday night’s main event against light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier due to a potential doping violation cast doubt over the event’s ability to draw a record audience.
Jones’ removal will also impact gate receipts, as Nevada requires fight promotions to offer ticket refunds to fans if a card’s main event is altered. As of Thursday, UFC 200 had yet to sell out.
While Florian predicts Jones’ absence will likely impact the event’s PPV audience by “a few hundred thousand buys,” he expects the presence of Tate, Lesnar and a highly-anticipated featherweight title match between Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar will soften the blow. Lesnar, who is also under contract with World Wrestling Entertainment (NYSE:WWE), is fighting for the first time since 2011.
“I still think, as far as star power, that Brock Lesnar is going to be a major draw and a major reason if we see a million PPV [buys],” Florian said. “I think the fact that it’s UFC 200, that number alone means something to the fans. And of course, we have two title fights on the line that night.”
UFC doesn’t typically publicize its pay-per-view sales figures, but company president Dana White said UFC 196, which culminated with McGregor’s shocking loss to Nate Diaz, drew an estimated 1.5 million buys in 2015. That’s close to the organization’s purported record of 1.6 million buys for UFC 100 in 2006, when Lesnar fought fan favorite Frank Mir for the heavyweight championship.
Regardless of whether UFC 200 posts record-setting numbers, this weekend’s event is a high-water mark for the promotion in terms of public exposure. Later this year, UFC will hold its first event in Madison Square Garden in more than two decades, just months after state officials voted to legalize mixed martial arts.
Mixed martial arts’ spiking popularity has stoked rumors that UFC is considering a sale, though Lorenzo Fertitta and White downplayed various reports about the purported bidding process as recently as this week.
“I’ve never been more bullish on the business. I still have massive love for the sport. I never said I was walking away,” Fertitta told the Los Angeles Times.
While annual revenue of established sports leagues like the NFL and MLB still dwarfs that of UFC, Florian said the promotion is poised for similar success in the future.
“I think it can, if you look at how far it’s come in a short amount of time. The NFL has been around a long time,” Florian said. “I think it really is dependent on the quality of the athletes, the kind of personalities that come out, and the type of promotion and marketing that the UFC does. Due to the evolution, due to the amount of fighters that are in the UFC right now, it’s very difficult to develop stars the way they used to.”
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