If Sidney Crosby took an indefinite leave of absence from the NHL then decided to return four years later, don’t you think it would be a massive deal to Canadian sports fans?
Then why aren’t more people talking about Georges St-Pierre’s return to mixed martial arts? The former welterweight champion headlines UFC 217 on Saturday at the iconic Madison Square Garden against current middleweight kingpin Michael Bisping yet the buzz surrounding his return and the event itself has been far more subdued than one might have expected.
MMA has never and will never be as popular as hockey in Canada, obviously, but St-Pierre for a time was just as recognizable as any NHL star in his home country and perhaps more well known internationally than any Canadian athlete during his decade-plus of dominance in the UFC.
While the hardcore MMA fan base is excited and curious to see what St-Pierre is capable of in the cage after all this time away, his comeback has not sparked much interest from the casual fan base—and it’s those casual fans that drive the success of the UFC these days.
“Bisping vs. GSP. Now, I’m hearing that that’s not selling well, like, at Madison Square Garden. That’s unfortunate,” UFC commentator Joe Rogan said on a recent episode of his popular Fight Companion podcast. “Here’s the thing, though, if you really stop and think about it, that was four years ago the last time he fought [against] Johny Hendricks. The people that are into the UFC now, they’re post-Ronda Rousey, post-Conor McGregor, the casual fans.”
Rogan makes a good point.
Less than 48 hours out from UFC 217, the event was nowhere close to being sold out, according to Ticketmaster. In the past, that would never happen for a GSP-headlined card.
One year ago, as St-Pierre prepared for his comeback and his management team negotiated a new contract with the UFC’s new WME-IMG ownership group, the Saint-Isidore, Que., native detailed some of what the promotion was saying.
“The UFC told us they would take a huge financial risk to have me back and they would need to spend a lot of money to reintroduce me to the new audience,” St-Pierre said during an appearance on The MMA Hour.
At the time, at least from a UFC fan’s perspective, the idea that you would have to reintroduce one of the biggest stars in the sport’s history to a new audience seemed absurd, or merely an insulting contract negotiation tactic from the UFC.
Well, upon further review, the UFC might have been onto something.
Since he announced his indefinite leave of absence following UFC 167 in November 2013, St-Pierre has been largely irrelevant to Canadian sports fans compared to both his peak popularity and the UFC superstars that emerged after he left.
Below is a Google Trends chart tracking Google searches for “GSP,” “Georges St-Pierre,” “Ronda Rousey” and “Conor McGregor” in Canada since November 2006, the month in which St-Pierre first became a UFC champion.
Per Google Trends: “Numbers [displayed in the graphs] represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. Likewise a score of 0 means the term was less than 1% as popular as the peak.”
The green spike represents McGregor’s boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Jr., which was one of the biggest sporting events of all time, and skews the results slightly but as you can see there has only been a slight uptick in “GSP/Georges St-Pierre” Google searches as UFC 217 approaches.
Here is a look at YouTube searches in Canada since 2008 (because that’s as far back as Google Trends will allow you to go).
Again, people aren’t looking up St-Pierre like they once did. Not even close.
Finally, here are Google search results from 2017.
Remember, these results are in Canada. When looking up the same search terms over the same time periods both in the United States and internationally, GSP is barely a blip on the radar compared to McGregor and Rousey, but more noteworthy, compared to himself.
“I do not focus on that. I don’t even care,” St-Pierre told MMAJunkie when addressing UFC 217 buzz and ticket sales during a media day in Montreal in late October. “I don’t care. I would rather make zero dollars and win my fight than make $10 million and lose my fight. This is my word, and I swear it’s true. It’s always been like that, even when I was poor. I want to win, and I don’t care about (money or recognition). They’re going to know me after I win.”
St-Pierre has been criticized by fighters and some fans in the past for having a boring style but as he recently told Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford during a media stop in Toronto: “I’m not boring. I used to be the guy that sells the most pay-per-view before Conor McGregor, so I don’t think I’m boring. If I would be boring people would not buy my pay-per-view.…Everybody wants to fight me because they know they gonna have a big paycheque, they gonna sell a lot of pay-per-view.”
The UFC never publicly discloses pay-per-view numbers but based on estimates from industry insiders, suffice it to say, 2017 has not been a good year for PPV sales.
|Event||Date||Estimated PPV buys|
|UFC 208||Feb. 11||200,000|
|UFC 209||March 4||250,000|
|UFC 210||April 8||300,000|
|UFC 211||May 13||300,000|
|UFC 212||June 3||200,000|
|UFC 213||July 8||130,000|
|UFC 214||July 29||850,000|
|UFC 215||Sept. 9||100,000|
|UFC 216||Oct. 7||130,000|
The one outlier in 2017 was UFC 214, headlined by an anticipated grudge match between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier. The buzz leading up to that event was muffled compared to their first encounter at UFC 182 back in January 2015 yet the sequel actually outperformed their first bout by a slim margin.
By comparison, here are the types of numbers St-Pierre was generating as a headliner in his heyday.
|Event||Date||Estimated PPV buys|
|UFC 167||Nov. 16, 2013||630,000|
|UFC 158||March 16, 2013||950,000|
|UFC 154||Nov. 17, 2012||700,000|
|UFC 129||April 30, 2011||800,000|
|UFC 124||Dec. 11, 2010||785,000|
|UFC 111||March 27, 2010||770,000|
|UFC 100**||July 11, 2009||1,600,000|
|UFC 94||Jan. 31, 2009||920,000|
|UFC 87||Aug. 9, 2008||625,000|
|UFC 79||Dec. 29, 2007||650,000|
|UFC 74**||Aug. 25, 2007||520,000|
|UFC 69||April 7, 2007||400,000|
|UFC 65||Nov. 18, 2006||500,000|
(** denotes a card in which GSP was featured in the co-main event)
Add those numbers up and you’re at roughly 9.85 million buys for an average buy rate of more than 750,000 per GSP event. If UFC 217 draws close to that many buys it will be considered a massive success in today’s MMA climate.
UFC president Dana White told FOX Business, “We will do a million buys for this fight,” when talking about UFC 217.
Based on the trends, however, that seems highly improbable.
The only time St-Pierre ever hit that vaunted one million buys benchmark was for the historic UFC 100 which also featured a heavyweight title unification match between Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir, plus an anticipated bout between Bisping and rival Dan Henderson.
Now, St-Pierre isn’t the only star scheduled to compete at UFC 217 but he is the only proven PPV draw.
Bisping has headlined three PPV events in his career (UFC 78, UFC 199 and UFC 204) but none of them topped 400,000 buys. Johny Hendricks, St-Pierre’s most recent opponent, is featured in the first fight on the UFC 217 main card. Hendricks headlined two PPVs following his memorable UFC 167 fight with St-Pierre. Both were against Robbie Lawler and those two events averaged approximately 350,000 buys, but Hendricks has looked like a shell of the fighter that many believed should’ve walked away with a decision victory over GSP and isn’t likely to contribute many buys this weekend.
T.J. Dillashaw, the former bantamweight champion looking to reclaim his belt against ex-teammate Cody Garbrandt in the co-main event, headlined UFC 173 (215,000 buys) and UFC 177 (125,000 buys). Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson headlined UFC 209 (250,000 buys) earlier this year. Garbrandt and strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk are rising stars but neither has ever headlined a PPV event.
All this is to say UFC 217 PPV sales fall mostly on St-Pierre’s shoulders and will be an indication of his star power.
With Rousey gone and likely to never return to UFC competition, Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar suspended and their futures in doubt, and McGregor refusing to fight unless he can be a co-promoter, the UFC has a dearth of legitimate superstars and the promotion is counting on St-Pierre being the same type of draw he was before he left.
They need him to be.
Whether or not that happens we’ll have to wait and see.