The Ultimate Fighting Championship is staging its first pay-per-view card of the year Saturday night (we don’t get the first boxing PPV event until March). It marks the 11th straight year of the mixed martial arts outfit staging an event on Super Bowl weekend. The previous ten Super Bowl weekend events were in Las Vegas in order to capitalize on a big influx of tourists, according to UFC exec Jackie Poriadjian. The Super Bowl is one of Vegas’ biggest weekends since the Big Game is the most heavily bet on sporting event of the year with $99 million bet legally in Nevada last year on Super Bowl XLVII.
But this year the UFC is taking advantage of the hype and novelty of the first cold-weather game in the largest metro area in the U.S. Saturday’s card will take place at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., 10 miles from where the Super Bowl will be played at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. The UFC has been piggybacking on the crowds and media in the New York area for the game. UFC correspondent Megan Olivi showed up at the NFL’s media day circus with the championship belt and players posed with it. Fighters posed in the jerseys of the game’s quarterbacks. EA Sports, Budweiser InBev and Time Warner all have a big presence at the Super Bowl and are also UFC partners. Fox is also the home of both the Super Bowl and the UFC.
“Fox encouraged us to bring our event to New Jersey to compliment their Super Bowl coverage and make it an even bigger weekend on Fox with two big sports properties,” says Poriadjian.
UFC has good reason to listen to the broadcaster. UFC signed a blockbuster seven-year deal with Fox in 2011 reportedly worth as much as $100 million annually. The agreement got off to a rousing start with the first Fox UFC card in November 2011 seen by an average of 5.7 million viewers—the biggest audience to watch any fight since the Lennox Lewis-Vitali Klitschko boxing match on HBO in 2003. More importantly, the UFC generated a huge 4.3 rating among the 18-34 male demographic that is so highly coveted by advertisers. It was bigger than the audience for all but one college football game through the first 2 ½ months of the 2011 season.
UFC has gone through a series of ups and downs since that kickoff event on Fox. The next year was marred by fighter injuries that resulted in 100 arranged fights not being made and three shows cancelled. The sport’s biggest pay-per-view star, Georges St. Pierre was sidelined for 18 months after a knee injury and ratings for the four events on Fox averaged 3.5 million viewers during 2012. This past year saw the launch of Fox Sports 1 in August, which meant a new home for fans to find UFC broadcasts that had been regularly appearing on Fuel and FX, and ratings were uneven.
But UFC finished 2013 with a flourish with its biggest PPV audience in three-and-a-half years on Dec. 28. UFC 168 had just over one million PPV buys with gross PPV revenue approaching $60 million. The gate was $6.2 million at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The two revenue figures represent the second biggest hauls in the history of the UFC after UFC 100 in 2009. UFC 168 was headlined by the much anticipated rematch between Chris Weidman and Anderson Silva, which Weidman won by TKO when Silva gruesomely broke his leg throwing a leg kick. The event also featured a rematch won by Ronda Rousey over Miesha Tate. The women had served as the coaches in the UFC reality series, Ultimate Fighter 18, last year.
Rousey’s rise comes at a time when two of the sport’s biggest draws, Silva and St-Pierre, are sidelined and might not have many fights left between them. “She is our biggest star now,” says Poriadjian. “Rousey captures the imagination of both men and women.” Rousey, 27, is the top female fighter in the sport and the first woman to sign a deal with UFC. She has crossed over into the mainstream with starring roles in two upcoming movies, The Expendables 3 and Fast & Furious 7. She appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue” and on the Maxim Hot 100, as well as on Jimmy Kimmel’s couch at the end of 2013. Rousey will headline UFC 170 on Feb. 22 in Las Vegas.
One of UFC President Dana White’s favorite axioms is: Fighting is universal. The numbers back him up. The UFC is now broadcast in 149 countries and territories in 30 languages. The brand has produced four international installments of the Ultimate Fighter reality series. The latest international Ultimate Fighter is taking place in China with the final bouts expected to be aired in March. UFC expects to put on six events in Asia in 2014 and as many as four in Europe. UFC launched its own 24/7 subscription channel in March with Mexican group Televisa. The channel will air in 20 Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America.
The one place you won’t see a UFC bout is New York. The state remains the only one in the U.S. that will not approve professional MMA cards (amateur bouts are legal). There is apparently enough support among lawmakers to pass legislation to legalize MMA, but the bill can’t get reach the floor for a vote. The vote is being blocked by state Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, according to UFC CEO and billionaire Lorenzo Feritta. UFC had HR&A Advisors put together a report that says the MMA ban costs New York State $135 million a year in lost economic activity from events and training centers. There are plenty of New York MMA fans as 10% of UFC’s revenues are derived from New Yorkers, according to Poriadjian.
New York’s loss is New Jersey’s gain. UFC 169 will be the sixth UFC event in the Garden State since 2010. A sellout crowd of 14,800 is expected with many arriving from out of town (20% of ticket sales for UFC 168 came from Brazil). Tickets range from $50 to $400 with the total gate at $1.7 million. New Jersey is the place to be for all of your sporting needs this weekend.