Saturday Night's Mania Event: With the 2011 NFL Lockout ending, did UFC capitalize during football's labor strife?

I may not be a man of tradition but I'm definitely what you would consider a traditional American football fan.

I was born into a family that loves the NFL and Sundays during the fall and winter were reserved for football day and night. Everyone chose a team to hitch their wagon to (proud Chicago Bears fan reporting for duty), and we built memories around the sport that have lasted a lifetime.

This love has continued from my childhood and on into my adult life, no different than so many others across the nation. This is evidenced by the absolute bonkers ratings football games garner on television each year.

And they've only been improving.

However, for years it's been known that the league and its participants were headed for a crossroads, an impasse. The owners and the players have long fought over how to divvy up profits the likes of which MMA organizations can only dream of.

And so, on March 12, 2011, the NFL lockout officially began. The owners and players put the future of the sport in jeopardy and the league in limbo because it could not come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement.

The outcry from fans was swift and echoed loudly throughout the country. How the hell could they let this happen? You're honestly telling us that these fat cats can't figure out how to divide up $9 billion? Is this a joke? Are we being trolled?

Nope.

Eventually, greed will imprison us all and when you have a ton of money, usually, you want a ton more. Ever since that fateful March day, the league and its players and owners have been battling back and forth in court, in the media, anywhere they can. It's been ugly the whole way, alienating many fans who are layman and don't understand all this lawyer speak, mumbo-jumbo crap spewing from everyone's mouth.

Those fans were displaced and fed up with dealing with and hearing about nothing but problems between people they cannot relate to. They were ready to find another sport to give their allegiance to, if only until the lockout ended.

Well, the lockout is just days away from finally coming to a close, if several reports are to be believed. So from March to August, the UFC had a chance to steal away a large number of displaced fans and hopefully convert them into longtime supporters, no different than they have been for the NFL.

Did it happen?

That's a difficult question to answer.

For starters, how would one measure such a thing? Search traffic? No real noticeable gains there. We here at MMAmania.com have seen growth the past few months but nothing that would blow us out of our seats.

How about pay-per-view (PPV) numbers?

Let's look at the PPV buys for 2010 events from the month of March to the end of July compared to the same in the year 2011:

2010

UFC 111 - 770,000
UFC 112 - 500,000
UFC 113 - 520,000
UFC 114 - 1,050,000
UFC 115 - 525,000
UFC 116 - 1,160,000
Total - 4,525,000

2011

UFC 128 - 445,000
UFC 129 - 800,000
UFC 130 - 300,000
UFC 131 - 325,000
UFC 132 - 350,000
Total - 2,220,000

Wow. That's quite the disparity in numbers. The UFC had more than double the PPV buys during the 2010 stretch. Yes, they held one more event in 2010 but even if you minus the largest number from the first set, you still get a disparity of over a million. That doesn't bode well for the sort of gains one would hope to expect from a bevy of pissed off NFL fans looking for somewhere else to spend their dollar. Or even just another sport to occupy their time.

Apparently, they didn't turn to fighting.

There are plenty of factors to consider here, of course. For starters, that stretch in 2010 was highlighted as one of the better stretches in the promotion's history.

All five major titles were defended, and the two fight cards that didn't feature a championship match were headlined by the first African-American main event in the promotion's history between two fighters who had built one of the greatest feuds in recent memory and the final fight in the career of the legendary Chuck Liddell.

It was actually quite an amazing feat that UFC went that many events in a row without falling behind the 500,000 buy mark. Unprecedented, actually. It's natural to think they couldn't replicate that success. But why didn't they even come close?

1. Injuries

UFC 128, 130 and 131 all lost their original main events and in the case of the latter two, suffered greatly because of it. Jon Jones stepping in to replace Rashad Evans wasn't so bad but losing out on the Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard trilogy fight and the unbelievable drawing power of box-office behemoth Brock Lesnar, doomed both events.

Their replacement fights were solid but not spectacular. Combine that with various other odds and injury ends and the 2011 stretch was ravaged by ailing fighters.

2. Timing

This was already touched on a bit previously but the timing worked out wonderfully for last year and not so much for this one. Of the four title defenses this year, two of them (one cancelled) featured lighter weight classes, one of which (bantamweight) had never been defended inside the Octagon before.

And unless your name is BJ Penn, you're not drawing big numbers on PPV at 155-pounds or less.

That's not to say that will always be the case, of course. The key to the UFC business model is to constantly create a stream of new stars that will carry the promotion in the future. Unfortunately, there are times when certain events will suffer today for the betterment of tomorrow.

But again, this was the worst possible time to have this happen.

3. Performance

UFC PPV's are driven by the main event. We can yak all we want about a card being "stacked" or "loaded" but the fact remains, the headliner is what sells.

There is nothing worse for business than when the paying customer buys a fight card expecting to see something great in the main event and they get nothing but a dud.

Four of the five headliners went to decision, two of which were dull enough to make the mind drift. Seriously, if a fight -- a fist fight with two guys trying to maim each other -- can lull you into a daydream, it's bad.

What makes this all the worse is the fact that the big seller, the monster card that was UFC 129, featured one of the worst, most boring fights I've ever seen. And I don't have the same "STAND-AND-BANG" standards of most fans, nor am I anything like the JUST BLEED guy.

Still, I left that event, which was otherwise filled with awesome action, shaking my head and wishing I hadn't watched. Reading the reaction of fight fans everyone, the general impression was that even fans of Georges St. Pierre left that night saying, "That's it. That's the last time I shell out money for a GSP card."

For emphasis, many of the folks saying that were hardcore fans; not the "casuals" who aren't altogether familiar with the product and certainly not the crossover fans that were coming from the NFL and all its bullshit.

And it's sad to say that they must have felt the same. They were told to expect greatness and they got garbage.

No, of course you can't expect greatness from every event and from every headlining fighter but the fact is, when the UFC needed its stars to deliver, and in the case of UFC 129, the man UFC President Dana White calls "the biggest star in MMA," they didn't.

Imagine the NFL fans who went searching for a new product to enjoy while waiting out the lockout. Now that it's almost over and they're all ready to migrate back to pro football, how many do you think are leaving with a sour taste in their mouth? How many became fans and will stay that way? How many could take the UFC or leave it?

Far too many.

I asked one fan that fit all this criteria what his feelings are now that the NFL lockout is nearly over. "I'm ecstatic. Can't wait for football to finally be back."

What did you think of UFC as a replacement? "It was okay, I guess. Nothing special." Was the UFC able to make you a fan and will you be ordering any PPV events in the future? "Probably not. Maybe if that Karate Kid guy is fighting. He was awesome. Only if he's not fighting that bald guy with the tattoo on his chest. The French guy. Yeah, that guy sucked."

Hard not to shake my head at that but this is literally the way "casual" fans think.

Back to the beginning. Did the UFC capitalize on football's labor strife and gain new fans during the lockout? The answer is no; sadly, they did not. 

Maybe I'm wrong and if I am, feel free to tell me. Just make sure you explain exactly how.

Oh and go Bears!!!

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