Article by Dave Walsh
To those who are gleefully unaware, WWE’s biggest show of the year, Wrestlemania, happened last night in New York, drawing their biggest crowd of the year and once again should be considered a pretty big success. Now, while I’m aware that professional wrestling and mixed martial arts are in a way apples and oranges, but the reality here is that the UFC has for a very long time modeled itself after WWE’s business model and can attribute a lot of their success from that.
The free television and monthly PPV model has been what has kept WWE alive for a long time now, as they have had their Monday night staple, Raw, and their end-of-the-week show, Smackdown, for years now. They have been used to build interest for the monthly PPV events with the formula of giving some content away, but holding back the “premium” content in bigger matches to the costly monthly PPVs. Of course, due to the nature of the programming, the UFC could never run true weekly content like the WWE does, but they still have their Fuel, FX and Fox “free” cards as well as The Ultimate Fighter to pull in interest.
While many don’t like to make the connection between the UFC and WWE, it’s been clear for a while that the UFC has been modeled after the WWE, with Dana even expressing his respect for Vince McMahon, the WWE’s charismatic, sociopath leader. Hell, even the UFC’s global expansion feels a lot like WWE’s. For the WWE, they saw domestic PPV numbers dropping steadily for a while and saw other markets having the potential to carryover some of that lost business and for creating new business. It helped them to avoid disaster as interest waned in the United States.
International markets are usually treated with a show or two every once in a while, but those shows are usually much smaller in scope, leaving the important stuff to the home market of the United States. If that sounds familiar, coming off of UFC on Fuel 9 from Sweden, it should. The UFC follows the WWE’s lead when it comes to their international markets, only giving them bigger shows if they prove to be bigger, money-making markets. We’ve seen Canada and Brazil get treated like bigger markets over the past few years, but not much else, with even the UK being treated as second-rate.
So, the UFC follows WWE’s lead in a lot of business measures, but in what ways have they yet to catch up? I’d have to say, blatantly, it has to be live events and drawing in huge crowds across the country. The UFC has a few regular stops for them to put on PPV events and as they continue to traverse familiar turf they’ve seen their live attendances remain stagnant and even drop in some cases. In a few words, they are drying up their hot markets by oversaturating them with events.
The WWE produces two television shows a week that air on cable and feature big, live crowds. They traverse the country, putting on sometimes four live events a week, with two of those being televised, plus their monthly PPV event. While we do see dips and rises in attendance over the span of time, on average, things stay pretty even for them. The clear hierarchy of shows has helped to sell them to fans, as well, with PPVs still feeling like a big deal and television tapings always seem to be worth the price of admission.
Part of what bolsters this whole process is that every year there is a Wrestlemania, which is sold as the biggest, most important event of the year. It is a time when all of the past year of programming finally culminates and serves as a de facto end-of-season game for the WWE. It’s their Super Bowl. What’s impressive about Wrestlemania is that it keeps pulling in huge crowds. Starting with Wrestlemania 23 the WWE has seemingly switched over exclusively to booking stadiums for these shows, not arenas, and having a great deal of success. WWE has done everything in their power to make it a cultural event for fans, with a weekend chock full of events, including a Hall of Fame ceremony, a fan expo and more. That helped them to draw a staggering 80,000 fans for this year’s show.
The UFC has had a few decent successes in selling larger events, but the average “big live attendance” is still under 20,000 fans. It might be time for the UFC to consider having one huge yearly event, much like WWE’s Wrestlemania. We saw them do something similar with UFC 100, but outside of that they have yet to really have an event that felt as big or special as that one. Maybe the UFC is afraid that they wouldn’t be able to sell tickets to a big stadium show? If they were to book an event like UFC 100 and sell it as such, I think that they’d have no problem doing that.
They’ve gotten this far using a basic outline of WWE’s business plan, now should be the time to go all the way.