Across its 25 cards in 2017 and 2018, U.F.C. attracted 400,000 pay-per-view purchases — a threshold for what Berman considers substantial — only four times. U.F.C. events topped a million once, when Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated McGregor in October, according to MMAPayout.com, a website that tracks the business of mixed martial arts. In its 26 cards from 2015 to 2016, when Rousey and McGregor were fighting regularly, 13 pay-per-view bouts surpassed 400,000 purchases, and seven exceeded a million.
“There’s so much content available that it becomes very difficult to differentiate between a lower-level pay-per-view and a fight that had been appearing on Fox or FS1,” Berman said. “If you’ve got three weeks of U.F.C. programming and two are available for free and one is $65, the one that’s $65 really has to stand out to pay that money. Without the big stars, it’s difficult to convince people to spend.”
That’s especially true, Berman added, now that people are spending on other streaming services like Hulu, Netflix or DAZN and will have to determine whether they want to pay for another.
“ESPN has that brand name and can build off that, but they’re not the only game in town,” Carter said.
The best way, Zelaznik said, to distinguish U.F.C. — to make people care — is to identify fighters as personalities.
Liddell knocked out people. Georges St-Pierre kept fans interested by defending his title nine consecutive times. Michael Bisping won a season of the reality television series “The Ultimate Fighter” — then won the middleweight title. If you don’t have a great fighter, Zelaznik said, you can’t make him a star.
“That’s when you need the Conors of the world — the Brock Lesnars, even the Jon Joneses,” Zelaznik said. “Otherwise you’re just fishing in the same pond, repurposing all of your fans. You’ve got to grow in this space or you die.”