According to MMAJunkie.com, last Saturday’s WEC 47 event delivered the promotion’s lowest television ratings of the last couple years. The event, emanating from Columbus, OH and featuring a Bantamweight Title bout (see previous post) and appearances from former champion Miguel Torres and Jens Pulver, drew roughly 373,000 viewers for a 0.49 share.
That represents a significant drop from the previous WEC televised card in January, which was headlined by a Lightweight Title bout and the return of featherweight and perennial WEC drawing card Urijah Faber after a seven month lay-off. The only other card in the last two years to do worse numbers was last December’s WEC 45, which had no star power other than former Lightweight champion Donald Cerrone, a minor star in the promotion’s weakest weight class, who was just coming off a decision loss to Ben Henderson.
The sudden drop has had several folks speculating what this means for their initial foray into pay-per-view this April and if, in the grand scheme of things, this means the sky is falling on the promotion.
The answer is no. Well, not yet at least. The WEC does have problems, but they extend far beyond a poor rating on Saturday night.
WEC 47 had a lot working against it. For one, most of the audience was largely unfamiliar with the two fighters competing for the Bantamweight title. Bowles had yet to prove that his knockout of Miguel Torres was anything more than a fluke. His challenger, Dominick Cruz, was a viable challenger statistically but had only fought on television once in the last three years. Anticipation and buzz for the fight was almost non-existent.
The WEC had also heralded the card behind fights featuring Jens Pulver and Miguel Torres, but they represented problems as well. Pulver had once been a draw for the promotion due to his association with the UFC and an exciting series of fights with Urijah Faber. He also went into the event coming off five consecutive losses, and most simply did not buy him as a viable challenger in a stacked featherweight division. The return of Miguel Torres did present some opportunity to bring in viewers, but despite his efforts he does not have the following or star power of someone like Faber.
Beyond the lack of star power, the card was also a victim of timing. It came on the heels of the aforementioned pay-per-view venture, which had both promoters and the viewing audience looking past the event and towards the showdown between Faber and Jose Aldo in April.
The real problems in the WEC lie in places other than the poor number they drew in Saturday, and the fallout from the events of the card itself should yield greater concern than its ratings: it resulted in the retirement of Jens Pulver, the demystification of Miguel Torres, and yet another brief Bantamweight title reign ended unexpectedly. Those three fights alone have placed the WEC in a conundrum: it now finds itself venturing into an uncertain pay-per-view market while it’s hemorrhaging star power.
In terms of its drawing power, the Bantamweight division is a relative no-man’s land. It’s seen a sudden surge in talent that has resulted in parity at the top of the weight class. What’s good for competition, however, can be bad for business.
Revenue in combat sports is made by and thrives on consistency. As an example, the UFC’s biggest draws at the moment are its most dominant champions: Brock Lesnar, Georges St. Pierre, and Anderson Silva. Fans need to believe that a challenger could potentially usurp the champion in order to maintain interest, but a title switching hands too often results in the perception (whether accurate or not) that it’s a wide open field and any number of fighters could become champion on any given night. As a result, the fighters in the division gain the respect of hardcore fans and analysts while the value of the title they’re vying for is diminished in the eyes of the casual viewer.
That leaves the Featherweights, and in particular former champion Urijah Faber, to carry the weight of the promotion on their backs. Needless to say, if Faber wins the title he’ll re-establish himself as the flag-bearer of the division and the WEC as a whole. A loss against such a worthy opponent will not hurt his reputation as a fighter, but after two losses to Mike Brown will definitely hurt the WEC’s ability to push him as a major star.
In addition, WEC is going into its first pay-per-view while losing momentum as a promotion. Some place the blame for the significant drop in overall viewership over the last several events squarely on the Versus/DirecTV debacle. However, that argument requires we ignore the fact that WEC 46 in January drew 640,000 viewers. That matches (and in some cases even beats) the higher-profile cards WEC presented while still airing on DirecTV, while none of the previous three cards topped 420,000 viewers. The success of that particular event is directly attributable to the presence of Urijah Faber on the card and further evidence of his value. If Faber were to lose to Aldo in convincing fasion, it’d be a disaster for the promotion.
The only potentially positive outcome would be Jose Aldo as the promotion’s version of Anderson Silva: a nigh-untouchable striker whose exciting knockouts make him worth watching no matter who he’s matched up against. WEC also has a charismatic and potentially bankable Bantamweight champion in Dominick Cruz, so long as he can string at least two successful title defenses. If he can do so, the WEC will have an even bigger star at 135 than it had with Miguel Torres.
I personally would like to see the WEC succeed, as I truly believe it’s provided the best fight cards of the last three years and is the most consistently entertaining promotion in the world. Unfortunately, they’re not going to be a priority for parent company Zuffa (which also owns The UFC) and as a result they have few options in terms of resources and fighters. It’s almost unfair to expect a promotion to succeed when it’s restricted to two relatively untested weight divisions and a third weight division with an already shallow talent pool subject to raiding by the UFC.
The MMA industry is uncertain terrain for any promotion. Even the UFC – the most recognizable brand name in the sport’s history – finds itself serving at the whim of circumstance; the various injuries and re-shuffling of cards last Fall testify to that fact. In that sense, the WEC’s predicament isn’t unprecedented, nor is it hopeless. But the events of the last several months have increased the pressure to perform well in its inaugural pay-per-view outing.