Coming out of the pandemic, many believed sports fans would be eager to return to stadiums and arenas. But a lack of capacity crowds across the ecosystem indicates otherwise (see: MLB, MLS, MiLB). “While there was a pent-up demand for [some] teams, there haven’t been as many sellouts as some industry experts expected,” said Patrick Ryan (co-founder, Eventellect).
One organization that has not had any problem selling tickets since attendance restrictions were lifted is the UFC. In fact, the mixed martial arts promotion set three consecutive arena gate records (UFC 261, UFC 262, UFC 263) over the last 10 weeks and will host its fourth consecutive sold-out event this weekend (tickets to UFC 265 go on sale later today). While UFC 264—headlined by Conor McGregor-Dustin Poirier 3—won’t set a T-Mobile Arena gate record (the 2017 boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and McGregor holds the record), Peter Dropick (executive vice president, UFC Event Development and Operations) said it will be “one of our top gates of all-time. The demand has been extremely high for all categories of tickets.”
Our Take: It’s no surprise the UFC sold out this weekend’s event. McGregor is the sport’s biggest star, and the card is in a destination city, Las Vegas. But that wasn’t the case for the promotion’s three prior PPV events, held in Jacksonville (the site of UFC 261), Houston (UFC 262) and Glendale (UFC 263), respectively (no, suburban Phoenix is not a vacation hotspot in June).
The most obvious explanation for why the UFC can consistently sell out venues at a time when some other sports properties are struggling to move seats is product scarcity. Unlike big four teams that play a slate of home games, the UFC’s touring model means fans in most cities get just a single opportunity to see the sport live each year. Account for a lost 2020, and UFC enthusiasts are “two years, in some cases three years, out from having seen one of their favorite pieces of live entertainment,” Ryan said. “Traveling road-show type of events are the ones truly benefiting from the pent-up demand.”
While fans are undoubtedly showing up when the UFC comes to their city, there has also been a significant uptick in the number of people traveling to the last three PPV events. In pre-COVID times, just 20-25% of fans in attendance at any given show would be from outside the area. But in Jacksonville, Houston and Glendale, upwards of 60% of fans crossed state lines to attend.
It remains to be seen who will ultimately walk through the gates in Las Vegas (the ticket buyer is not necessarily the one using the seat). But Ryan anticipates the audience will again largely be made up of out-of-state fans. In addition to being a desirable locale, “The casinos have gotten very aggressive in trying to get their big players back to Vegas this summer (think: comps, rooms)," he said. "UFC 264 and some of the other big events [being held in the city over the next 60 days] are kind of being used as the tent poles to draw people to their properties.” TicketSmarter CEO Jeff Goodman pointed out that it is “the first [big] fight since Vegas reopened on July 1.”
The strong demand for UFC tickets (UFC 261 through 264 all sold out on the day they were announced) could also be a reflection of the sport’s rising popularity. “We were the first, and one of the few, live sporting event properties that continued to hold events [during the pandemic]. So, we saw significant growth in our fan base,” Dropick said. The UFC executive pointed out that the four sellouts occurred in four vastly different markets, not just a single city or state.
It is fair to wonder how a UFC event could set an arena gate record at a venue that plays host to an NBA (see: Toyota Center in Houston) or NHL team (see: Gila River Arena in Glendale). Those clubs are going to play far more dates at the arena. But Ryan explained that is precisely why their sellout crowds generate comparatively less revenue. “[One-off events], whether it be a concert or the UFC, have a bit more price elasticity because they aren’t going to be there all the time. The UFC is only going to come through Houston at most once a year. The local team with 40 home games has to be a bit more sensitive pricewise.” Of course, the more money generated in ticket sales, the more money there is to spend on marketing an event, which helps to ensure a sellout. For reference purposes, tickets to UFC 264 started at $300.
To be clear, while this weekend’s event is the fourth UFC card open to the public since attendance restrictions were lifted, there has been a series of shows in between the numbered PPV events (called UFC Fight Nights). But those cards were all held without fans at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas (a state-of-the-art production facility). The promotion, Dropick said, does have plans to introduce a “fairly exclusive experience, with a minimal number of tickets” to future Fight Nights.