It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
The famous line from Charles Dickens could very well be applied to the state of the UFC in Canada right now. And not a tale of two cities, but of two countries, one being our fine one and the other the home of the literary genius himself.
Canada and England are the UFC’s two most visited countries internationally, so it’s interesting that the last two UFC events have taken place there, because it provides a nice comparison of where each stands with regard to the world’s biggest mixed martial arts organization. And things aren’t looking quite as rosy as they once did for our proud nation. In fact, it is quite possible that Canada could be following the same path that its counterpart across the pond once did.
Before Canada became the “mecca of MMA,” it was England that appeared to be the one that the UFC saw as its base for major growth. While Canada got its own office of operations in 2010, spearheaded by former CFL commissioner Tom Wright, the UFC had long established its first international office in the U.K. Before Canada was getting its three “tent pole” events per year, the United Kingdom did, with three visits (including one in Northern Ireland) in 2007 — the year before the first show in Canada (UFC 83 in Montreal on April 19, 2008) — then another three times the following year. But in 2009, that number dropped down to two, and England has seen only one trip a year in the past three.
Great Britain isn’t getting the same quality cards it used to either. Early British events were much higher-profile — some were pay-per-view events and some even included championship fights. Quinton (Rampage) Jackson fought Dan Henderson at UFC 75: Champion vs. Champion to unify the UFC and Pride 205-pound titles in September 2007, while B.J. Penn defended his lightweight belt against Joe Stevenson at UFC 80 in January 2008.
But since then, England has seen few marquee fights, and fans and media have certainly complained. Saturday’s event in Nottingham had an interesting heavyweight headliner and plenty of local talent, but it had very few big names. And it was also the first time an England show was not a numbered event. UFC president Dana White can defend them all he wants, but he can’t say with a straight face that the focus on England has been the same.
The numbers have also dropped. Saturday’s event had a pretty paltry attendance of 7,241 fans (for a live gate of just under $1 million). That’s well below the building’s capacity of about 10,000. It’s also down quite significantly from the previous year’s trip to Birmingham, which had 10,823 fans, for a $1.5 million gate.
Most trips to England prior to 2011 had an attendance of 13,000-18,000. Granted they were mostly in London, where the venue (the O2 arena) is bigger and the market much larger. But the fact the UFC has not returned to the country’s capital since 2010 is also somewhat telling.
Now let’s examine Canada. When the UFC first came north of the border, it broke records left, right and centre. UFC 83, which featured Georges St-Pierre fighting Matt Serra for the welterweight title, sold out one minute after the public sale and set a North American MMA record with a crowd of 21,390. It also generated a total gate of $5.1 million.
UFC 97 the following year broke the attendance record with 21,451 and had a gate of $4.9 million. UFC 113 was down a bit, but there was more than enough interest in the fourth trip to Montreal in December 2010, headlined by St-Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck, for the UFC to release more tickets for yet another record-breaking 23,152 and gate of $4.6 million.
The first trip to Vancouver in June 2010 set its own record, selling out 30 minutes into the UFC Fight Club member pre-sale, though the attendance was only 17,669 at the smaller GM Place (now called Rogers Arena).
Of course, UFC 129 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto in April 2011 smashed all records, selling out to the tune of 55,724 for the organization’s first stadium show after the first offering of 42,000 seats was quickly snapped up before the end of the second pre-sale to UFC newsletter subscribers.
Canada continues to be one of the biggest fan bases for MMA, but more recent numbers may be telling a less sparkling story. The Toronto shows have dropped significantly in both hype and attendance, as in a blog last week. It has since been reported that of the 16,800 in attendance (which is already lower than all of the Canadian trips except Calgary this year and Vancouver last year, both of which had far inferior cards), only 10,000 were in paid attendance, according to MMA Supremacy. That would mean a full 6,800 tickets were given away (about 40 per cent), and they still had a few thousand empty seats. By comparison, UFC 140 in December had a crowd of 18,303 but a much more respectable 15,000 paid — only 3,303 “comps” (18 per cent). I can’t confirm these numbers, but it would certainly explain why last month’s gate was a mere $1.9 million, when December’s trip to the city had a gate of $3.9 million — more than double — with only 1,503 extra fans in the stands total
Still, the lack of interest in UFC 152 could be explained by many things: Jones was not exactly likeable at the time; the flyweight title competitors weren’t well known and weren’t sparking a lot of interest; the card was somewhat lacklustre, at least in many fans’ eyes, beyond the top three fights; and it was the third show in Toronto in 17 months.
But one thing has me baffled and, to be honest, quite concerned: UFC 154 went on sale last week, and despite the hoopla surrounding the long awaited return of Georges St-Pierre to the Octagon, it has not sold out. Not even close.
St-Pierre, the UFC’s biggest draw, biggest superstar and Canadian hero, is fighting Carlos Condit to unify the welterweight championships, in his hometown, while looking to overcome a long layoff. It has all the intrigue in the world and has been talked about for the past 10 months. I would have expected it to nearly sell out just at Thursday’s UFC Fight Club member pre-sale, and if not, all remaining tickets scooped up when they went on sale to the general public on Saturday. Yet on Tuesday evening, you could still purchase tickets at nearly every price level.
Sure, you could only find single seats at the two cheapest price points. But there were pairs available at every level from $165.50 (for club seats) up to $625.50 (for the floor level and red seats closest to the cage). You could even find blocks of eight seats together (the maximum) in any of the red sections (price levels $275.50 – $625.50). Granted those are the expensive seats that the average fan may not go after, but this isn’t your average card. In addition to being GSP’s first fight in nearly a year and a half, this is also the UFC’s first trip to Montreal in nearly two full years. So why aren’t fans clamoring to buy whatever tickets are available?
Is it possible fans are just not interested in the Condit matchup? Do they think that it will be an easy win for GSP and want to save their money for the much-anticipated (potential) Anderson Silva fight? Have fans gotten lazy or do they think it’s just a better experience to watch the UFC at home? Or has the interest in the UFC in Canada actually waned? It’s hard to tell, but clearly a pattern is emerging.
Such a downward trend in ticket sales is not unique, nor unexpected. From 2007 to 2009, the UFC had an annual March stop in Columbus, Ohio. The first one, UFC 68, drew a then-record 19,079 to the Nationwide Arena to see Randy Couture become heavyweight champion for the third time by defeating Tim Sylvia. But after the live gate dipped from just over $3 million for the Columbus debut down to $1.8 million for UFC 96 two years later, the organization has not returned to the city since. There’s no reason why any Canadian city is immune to such a fate, so fans better not take things for granted.
Will UFC 154 eventually sell out? I would think so, but it’s really tough to say confidently. Many, including myself, thought for sure that UFC 152 in Toronto would sell out once it was announced that Jon Jones vs. Vitor Belfort was added to the card as a new main event. It didn’t even come close. Add to that all the booing and complaining that took place among fans –as well as at the promotion’s first trip to Calgary this summer — which also underperformed on many levels — and Canada’s stock could be dropping just like England’s has before us.
The UFC will certainly continue to keep Canada, which remains one of White’s favourite places to visit, high on its radar. But it’s quite possible that our country is following the same path at the U.K., and that would not be good for UFC fans — or the UFC for that matter.