LAS VEGAS — The silence that had blanketed T-Mobile Arena for much of Saturday’s UFC 209 finally broke midway through Dan Kelly’s split decision victory over Rashad Evans.
Of course, it had nothing to do with the fight.
As Kelly and Evans circled around the middle of the Octagon, sections of fans rose from their seats as if they were starting the wave. Nate Diaz and his brother, Nick, were walking through the floor of the arena to their seats — and it was probably as loud as the crowd would get all night.
Sure, it had a lot to do with a lackluster main event between Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson, during which the crowd booed both fighters for much of their five actionless rounds. It also had a lot to do with the cancellation of the co-main event between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson after Nurmagomedov was hospitalized while trying to make weight.
But it also had a lot to do with the lack of star power at Saturday’s event. It has been a trend this year for the UFC, which was sold to a group led by talent agency WME-IMG for $4 billion last July.
The year was supposed to start off with a pay-per-view on Jan. 21 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. It was expected to be the perfect opportunity for the Hollywood talent agency to show off its new acquisition to clients and partners in its own backyard. The event was postponed until July 29 due to a lack of suitable headliners.
So the first pay-per-view of the year was UFC 208 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn last month. It was headlined by Holly Holm, who has been winless since upsetting Ronda Rousey in 2015, and Germaine de Randamie, who is still ranked No. 10 in UFC’s official bantamweight rankings. Not exactly the kind of headliners who will draw in casual fans.
It drew just 200,000 pay-per-view buys.
It did, however, beat out UFC 206. That event, held Dec. 10 in Toronto, attracted an even more meager 150,000 pay-per-view buys after a light heavyweight championship rematch between Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson was scrapped when Cormier suffered an injury during training.
UFC 209 may end up drawing a slighter larger buy rate, but there’s a good chance anyone outside of UFC’s hard-core fan base who ended up paying for the event will think twice before doing so again, given the underwhelming main event and the cancellation of the co-main.
No one knows the importance of stars and building celebrities more than WME-IMG. While the agency is still trying to figure out the unforgiving world of mixed martial arts, where a meticulously planned card can crumble in the blink of an eye due to an injury or illness, it realizes the necessity to build new stars to boost staggering pay-per-view numbers.
Take a look at the top 10 pay-per-view buy rates in UFC history and it’s no surprise that either Conor McGregor, Brock Lesnar or Rousey are on every card. Each one of those events drew over 1 million pay-per-view buys. But the problem for the UFC is Lesnar and Rousey are (or at least should be) done with MMA and McGregor, well, he wants to be part of the UFC’s ownership group, joining celebrities like Tyler Perry, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, Guy Fieri and Rob Dyrdek.
And why shouldn’t he? McGregor knows his worth. The last four cards he has headlined since UFC 194 on Dec. 12, 2015, have all garnered over 1 million pay-per-view buys. There have only been three other cards since 2014 which have eclipsed the 1 million mark, and they included either Rousey or Lesnar. How much weight do those three carry? Well, the UFC hasn’t had a card without McGregor, Rousey or Lesnar which has hit even 500,000 buys since UFC 183 on Jan. 31, 2015. The closest since then was UFC 203, which did 450,000 buys largely due to the UFC debut of former WWE champion CM Punk.
UFC needs stars and it needs them now.
The UFC did everything it could to get Georges St-Pierre, 35, to come out of retirement and sign a four-fight deal. Despite not stepping foot into the Octagon since 2013, the former UFC welterweight champion’s return fight in July will be a championship match against middleweight champion Michael Bisping. That’s right: His first fight in almost four years is a championship bout in a division he never competed in while in the UFC.
If it sounds crazy, it is — but it’s what the UFC needs to do right now. McGregor will eventually return this year and when he does, the UFC needs to hope some of his star quality rubs off on his opponents, whoever they are.
Nate Diaz is 19-11 as an MMA fighter, but his upset win over McGregor last year made him a star. A third fight between the two would likely set a new pay-per-view record for the company. But before that trilogy, the company needs to spread out its stars and create new ones, which WME-IMG is learning is harder to do in MMA than in Hollywood.