Brock Lesnar is UFC’s biggest draw

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

August 11, 2010

Overview: One of the common debates among MMA fans concerns which fighter is the biggest draw.  From the business side, a fighter’s draw shapes PPV expectations (and, subsequently, PPV revenues) and should play a major role in sponsorships for both the given fighter and every other fighter on the PPV.  In this series of articles, we’ll examine several intuitive ways that one can estimate a fighter’s draw and examine the wide variation in these estimates.  We’ll be focusing on the ten fighters that Derek Jenkins identified as the biggest draws in a recent article at Yahoo! Sports.

Today’s Comparison: Average PPV buys versus average PPV buys for cards with a fighter

Welcome to the first part of our series on which fighters are the biggest UFC PPV draws.  We’ll start with some basic numbers today and increase the difficulty as we progress through the series.

The Number

Average PPV buys are the most basic numbers we can use to determine a fighter’s draw.  Today, we’ll take the average number of buys for all UFC PPVs (including events with all ten fighters) and compare it with the average number of buys for UFC PPVs featuring each fighter.

We’ll discuss the reasons below, but we will look at the numbers from 2006-present and 2008-present.

The Fighters

As mentioned in the overview, we’ll be using the ten fighters that Derek Jenkins identified as the biggest draws: Brock Lesnar, Georges St. Pierre, Chuck Liddell, Rashad Evans, Quinton Jackson, Forrest Griffin, Lyoto Machida, BJ Penn, Anderson Silva, and Randy Couture.

The Data

We’ll be using the PPV buys for all UFC pay-per-view events from UFC 57 (Couture-Liddell III) to UFC 116 (Lesnar-Carwin).  You can view the PPV buys for events up to UFC 107 in our Blue Book.

Average buys for all UFC PPVs since 2006: 545,000

Fighter Average PPV buys for cards featuring fighter Difference from overall average
Brock Lesnar 1,007,000 462,000
Georges St. Pierre 682,000 137,000
Chuck Liddell 600,000 55,000
Rashad Evans 577,000 32,000
Quinton Jackson 669,000 124,000
Forrest Griffin 602,000 57,000
Lyoto Machida 572,000 27,000
BJ Penn 539,000 -6,000
Anderson Silva 456,000 -89,000
Randy Couture 530,000 -15,000

Average buys for all UFC PPVs since 2008: 581,000

Fighter Average PPV buys for cards featuring fighter Difference from overall average
Brock Lesnar 1,007,000 426,000
Georges St. Pierre 889,000 308,000
Chuck Liddell 550,000 -31,000
Rashad Evans 693,000 112,000
Quinton Jackson 735,000 154,000
Forrest Griffin 691,000 110,000
Lyoto Machida 610,000 29,000
BJ Penn 603,000 22,000
Anderson Silva 530,000 -51,000
Randy Couture 573,000 -8,000

Payout Perspective

Quick Thoughts

Regardless of which table you look at, two numbers confirm the general consensus – Brock Lesnar is a huge draw, and Anderson is a weak draw.

Chuck Liddell is a bit less of a draw when you look at the numbers for 2008-present, but your perspective can be swayed quite a bit based on whether you look at the left-hand column or the right-hand column.  If you compare the left-hand columns in both tables, Liddell drops about 50,000 PPV buys when you drop the numbers from 2006-07 (from 600,000 to 550,000).  If you instead look at the right-hand column, Liddell goes from drawing 55,000 PPV buys above the average buyrate of 545,000 to losing 31,000 buys from the average buyrate of 581,000.  Even though his overall numbers don’t change drastically, he appears to go from draw to anti-draw.

Georges St. Pierre became a star and looks like the only true MMA star to breakthrough to the mainstream.  One interesting aspect of GSP’s draw is to look at the fights from 2006-07 that get dropped in the second table.  These fights are: BJ Penn, Matt Hughes (GSP wins title), Matt Serra, Josh Koscheck, and Hughes again.  These were all huge fights when they happened, which highlights just how popular GSP has become as the sport continued to grow.

One thing that’s easy to overlook is the growth in the average number of PPV buys 2006-present (545,000) and 2008-present (581,000).  The extra 36,000 buys may not look very big, but it amounts to an additional $1,620,000[i] in PPV revenue (of which the UFC gets about 50%) per event.  If you then look at the sheer number of events the UFC runs now, those 36,000 extra buys add a substantial amount of money to Zuffa’s bottom line.

The Number

Average PPV buys are the most basic numbers we can use to determine a fighter’s draw.  We’ll take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of these numbers.


Simplicity. The primary strength of using such a simple number is that everyone understands the number.

Consistent baseline. The second big advantage in comparing a fighter’s average PPV buys to the overall average PPV is that we get a consistent baseline.  This consistent baseline allows us to compare the numbers for one fighter with the numbers for another fighter (eg. the difference between a fighter’s average and the overall average, presented in the right-hand column of both tables).  In the 2008-present table, we see that Machida is good for 29,000 buys above the average and Penn for 22,000.  Since both of these numbers use the same baseline, we can easily conclude that Machida pay-per-views generally get 7,000 buys more than Penn pay-per-views.

Aggregate information. Given that most fighters only fight a handful of times each year, aggregating their PPV buys over several years can give a better picture of a fighter’s draw, especially if a fighter only fought once in a year; in that situation, a fighter’s average PPV buyrate is identical to the buyrate for the only PPV he fought on.


Hides changes over time. The downside to aggregate information is that it can hide trends over time.  Given that MMA is still in its infancy and has experienced substantial growth in recent years, we would expect numbers from recent years to be more representative of a fighter’s draw.  This issue is the primary reason we presented information from 2006-present and 2008-present.  2008 is the first year that all ten fighters appeared in the UFC, with Lesnar and Machida being the most recent to fight for Zuffa.  Using numbers from 2006 and 2007 may penalize fighters – like Liddell and Couture – who were headlining PPV events when the sport was less popular.

Makes good draws look worse and bad draws look better. Consider Brock Lesnar, whose worst PPV did 600,000 buys.  His five PPVs in the dataset sold 600K, 625K, 1.01 million, 1.6 million, and 1.2 million.  These PPVs drive up the overall UFC average, which is what Lesnar is being compared to here.  A better comparison for Lesnar is to compare his average PPV buyrate to the average buyrate for all UFC PPVs that do not feature Lesnar.  Similarly, weaker draws like Anderson Silva look better because their lower buyrates pull the overall average buyrate down.

Someone has to be worse than average. This point is tied to the previous one, but it deserves special attention.  Only seven pay-per-view events since 2006 have not featured any of these ten fighters.  Essentially, we’re comparing these ten fighters against the average of all ten.  In doing so, someone has to have an average buyrate that’s below the overall average.  Mathematically, it’s just how averages work.  The problem here is that a fighter can look like an anti-draw, meaning people literally turn off the television or refuse to buy a PPV, when a certain fighter is on the card.  This also implies that the UFC would get a higher buyrate on an Anderson Silva card if they dropped him from the card, which is a bit absurd and probably not true.  If Silva had gotten hurt and Zuffa replaced him with Nate Marquardt against Chael Sonnen, the buyrate would likely be lower than if Silva was on the card.  Even though Silva looks bad in these tables, it’s because we’re comparing him to the other major draws in the UFC.  Dropping him from the card and replacing him with Marquardt would have given a more accurate picture of how many buys Silva pulls in against a UFC PPV without a “major headliner” which still has a solid card.  (Side note: Matt Hughes was arguably the biggest name on UFC 117 after Silva, and his place fourth-from-the-top of the card should tell you that Zuffa thinks Hughes’ days as a headliner are over.)

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