The Business of MMA in 2023: UFC produced over $1 billion in revenue, PFL buys Bellator, fighters turn to OnlyFans

The global pandemic crushed a lot of businesses across the globe, but it’s safe to say the UFC is one of the biggest success stories to emerge from that disastrous time.

While the pandemic prompted down years for just about everybody, the UFC still exploded in popularity over the past three years, securing bigger sponsorship deals, higher viewership, and strangely enough an invulnerability to losing fan interest in events that didn’t always have great name value attached. Case in point: Conor McGregor hasn’t fought since 2021 yet the past two years have still been the best ever for the UFC financially.

Now that the UFC operates as a publicly traded company — first under Endeavor and now as part of TKO Group Holdings — financial disclosures are regularly reported. What that shows is that the UFC has become a juggernaut of profitability, with revenue increases quarter after quarter, transforming the promotion into a company valued at over triple the-more-than $4 billion price tag Ari Emanuel and his investors at Endeavor paid for it in 2016.

UFC went on a ridiculous streak of sellouts at arenas, and while that momentum eventually stopped, the organization has still broken several live gate records over the past year.

A deep dive into the numbers in 2023 proves that the UFC isn’t slowing down, and if anything, the organization may be gaining steam heading into 2024 and beyond — 2025 will almost assuredly become the UFC’s biggest financial year because the company will ink a new broadcast rights deal worth billions. Multi-billions actually.

But for now, we’re going to take a look at the biggest business stories related to the MMA world in 2023 — and just for transparency’s sake, there’s one issue we won’t be tackling with this article, which is the effect of the ongoing class-action lawsuit against the UFC. That’s not to say information revealed from the lawsuit won’t be referenced, but its full financial impact won’t be felt until there’s either a settlement or the case goes to trial, and that’s not happening in 2023.

So with that said, let’s get started with a look at the UFC’s financials based on disclosures through the first nine months of the year (the final quarter won’t be reported until early 2024 so those aren’t available just yet).

UFC Produced More Than $1 Billion in Revenue in Just 9 Months

That’s probably the most staggering number to start with, because the UFC managed to rake in record revenues without even taking into account the final three months of the year, which included three pay-per-view cards in Abu Dhabi, New York, and Las Vegas.

In the nine-month span ending on Sept. 30, the UFC earned revenue reaching $1,009.4 billion which was up from $868.4 million from the same time in 2022.

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Breaking that down by segment — the bulk of the UFC’s revenue comes from media rights like the promotion’s deal with ESPN, which has paid out $702.5 million through September. That number is up more than $80 million from 2022.

Live events accounted for $115.6 million, with sponsorship totaling $148 million. Finally, consumer products, which includes t-shirt and merchandise sales, hit $43.3 million thus far in 2023.

Those are all huge numbers, and the final figures will reach even higher because that’s not even accounting for the holiday season, which will undoubtedly bump up the revenue for consumer products in particular.

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While the UFC reports financial disclosures as required by law as a publicly traded company, there’s still no direct insight on the company’s pay-per-view sales, but it’s safe to say those are robust given the massive revenue that was earned in 2023. While live gate numbers don’t always translate to PPV sales, UFC 295 is a good example of the “we just can’t miss” right now philosophy happening at the UFC after the card lost Jon Jones vs. Stipe Miocic as the main event and still produced a live gate at $12,432,563, the second-highest ever at New York’s Madison Square Garden venue.

Care to venture a guess what’s No. 1?

Yep, that would be UFC 205 back in 2016, which earned $17.7 million in a live gate for the first-ever card for the promotion in New York, with Conor McGregor headlining.

As far as the overall live gates for 2023 PPVs — minus UFC 283 in Brazil and UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi, where no attendance or live gate numbers were made available — the biggest was UFC 295 in New York while the lowest was UFC 289, with a live gate of $3,834,893 for the card in Vancouver headlined by Amanda Nunes vs. Irene Aldana.

The attendance and live gates for UFC Fight Night cards were also robust, as the promotion continued cutting costs by promoting a number of events at the UFC APEX. APEX cards cost very little outside of the talent and production staff required to work the events and the shows still manage impressive ticket sales through Endeavor’s On Location premium event services business, where interested fans can pay north of $2,000 per ticket for a VIP experience.

In other words, the UFC raked in a lot of profits for 2023.

UFC Inks Massive Deal with Bud Light

Another marquee moment for the UFC’s business in 2023 came when the promotion announced a new multi-year deal with Anheuser-Busch for Bud Light to become the official beer of the UFC in 2024.

While the UFC didn’t report any dollar amounts, the deal was reportedly worth more than $100 million, which makes it one of the richest sponsorships the company has ever signed.

Bud Light was one of the first real blue-chip sponsors to start working with the UFC several years ago when the promotion was still trying to build into a global powerhouse. Now, those roles are reversed, with Bud Light back in business with the UFC as the beer brand attempts to rebuild itself after a tumultuous 2023, which saw Bud Light sales dip for the year.

UFC CEO Dana White has defiantly defended the new partnership amid calls from some of his most loyal supporters after the beer brand partnered with trans activist and social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney. White fired back at critics over the partnership while reminding the world that he doesn’t work with anyone who doesn’t share his core beliefs.

“This was all about everybody on every side of this deal that were involved, other beer companies and everything else, [and they] absolutely, positively know this was not about money for me,” White said in October. “We were going to end up with money no matter who we ended up with.

“For Anheuser-Busch, it was about core values for me. I’m at a point in my life and I’m at a point in my career where nothing is just about money anymore.”

UFC Builds On Partnerships in the Middle East with Huge Site Fees

Site fees — money paid to a promotion like the UFC for holding an event in a certain city, arena, or otherwise — have become a huge business in recent years. WWE — the other half of TKO Group Holdings with the UFC — earns $100 million annually to take two events to Saudi Arabia, and now the MMA promotion has started to see similar results.

In October, the UFC announced an extension of an existing relationship with the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi that will see live events continuing to land there through 2028. The UFC has formally partnered with Abu Dhabi since 2019, with at least one pay-per-view card landing there per year.

Site fees in Abu Dhabi typically earn the UFC around $25 million per event, per TKO Group Holdings president Mark Shapiro.

One massive addition to the UFC’s portfolio, which was also announced in October, will be taking a card to Saudi Arabia for the first time in March 2024. Shapiro later revealed that the UFC would earn “roughly $20 million” for the first ever UFC Fight Night card in Saudi Arabia.

Those are staggering numbers, and demonstrates why the UFC continues to grow and expand its relationships in the Middle East.

PFL Gets a Bargain Basement Deal to Acquire Bellator

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Donn Davis
Photo By Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Bellator’s sale felt like a foregone conclusion in 2023 as parent company Paramount sought to dump red tape off its books, which included the long-running MMA promotion. Rumors began swirling months ago that deals were being negotiated that would potentially value Bellator at $500 million, and then other numbers started getting thrown around like $100 million.

It turns out the actual cash that traded hands when the PFL finally closed a deal to acquire Bellator from Paramount was zero. Nothing. Not a dime.

“This was a stock deal, not a cash deal,” PFL founder Donn Davis told MMA Fighting after the sale closed in November. “They’re a small, minority owner going forward.”

Now it’s easy to point to that deal and say, ‘Wow, PFL really got one over on Paramount,’ but that’s not exactly the case. You have to remember that Bellator wasn’t likely producing any serious revenue, much less turning a profit for Paramount, so dumping the promotion off its books to somebody else really just saves them money in the long run.

PFL now assumes Bellator’s debts, which means the entire fighter roster and the contracts that come along with it. Over time, PFL will undoubtedly look to trim that roster. Sadly, that’s bad news for the fighters, but it will be done as a cost-cutting measure to ideally transform this merger into a profitable company.

PFL Secures Huge Influx of Funding from Saudi Arabia

Another major story involving PFL in 2023 came from the news that SRJ Sports Investment — a branch of the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund — invested $100 million into the MMA promotion. As a result, SRJ retains an ownership share in the PFL.

Part of the deal includes PFL taking events to Saudi Arabia, including its “super fight” series on pay-per-view. PFL MENA will also launch in the near future, which will develop prospects and put on fight cards featuring fighters from the Middle East and North Africa region.

The $100 million investment will certainly help the PFL continue to grow in 2024, especially now that the company’s roster has almost tripled overnight with the Bellator acquisition.

PFL Re-Ups with ESPN

One more PFL story that deserved some attention in 2023 was the broadcast rights deal to stay with ESPN on a new multi-year contract.

PFL already aired events on ESPN, but this new deal will continue the partnership moving forward and keep ESPN+ as one of the pay-per-view distributors for future PFL “super fight” cards.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, so it’s tough to know how much ESPN paid to keep the PFL.

But despite the Saudi investment and ESPN deal, as far as PFL serving as competition to the UFC, the higher ups at TKO Group Holdings don’t seem to be losing any sleep.

“The investment that SRJ made in PFL, we look to our advantage,” Shapiro said in November. “We have no issue with Bellator, PFL, name your league. Competition is good.

“Not only do we have over 600 fighters, we have the premiere fighters. Ultimately you’re trying to get to the UFC, which is akin to the XFL trying to ultimately get their players into the NFL. That’s what we are. Those are pipeline and feeder properties. In fact, we’re supportive of [PFL] being on ESPN. PFL’s been on ESPN. We were totally supportive of that deal and the Saudi experience should prove out well for us.”

OnlyFans Continues to Drive Profits for Fighters

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This is an interesting twist when it comes to the business of MMA and combat sports in 2023, because OnlyFans — the subscription-based website where fans can pay a fee to see exclusive photos and videos, and interact with users — has become a huge part of the sponsorship model for the fight industry.

When ex-UFC fighter and current BKFC talent Bec Rawlings first joined the site during the global pandemic, she fielded a ton of questions about whether or not she was becoming a porn star thanks to OnlyFans being best known for adult-related content. Rawlings not only defended her decision to join OnlyFans, but she attributed her ability to survive the pandemic largely to the profits she made from selling subscriptions to users.

Fast forward three years later and fighters like Kevin Holland, who orchestrated the first sponsorship with the brand, has his own dedicated OnlyFans page. Even Stipe Miocic — the longest-reigning heavyweight champion in UFC history — has his own OnlyFans page where he breaks news about his fight schedule.

The PFL even had an OnlyFans sponsorship displayed on the canvas during the promotion’s championship card in November.

UFC fighter Ailin Perez revealed after her most recent win that she earned more than $30,000 from OnlyFans after a viral celebration got a lot of attention. Perez said that the money she made from OnlyFans was at least $6,000 more than she made by beating Lucie Pudilova on the card.

Sources speaking on the condition of anonymity told MMA Fighting that fighters joining the platform on a sponsorship deal can sometimes earn north of $100,000 with OnlyFans.

Of course, the biggest success story continues to be former UFC fighter Paige VanZant, who revealed that she earned more money on one day from OnlyFans than she did during her entire career with the UFC. She previously told MMA Fighting back in 2022 that she earned enough from OnlyFans that she could retire immediately and never worry about money again — and the same would go for any children she might have one day in the future with fighter husband Austin Vanderford.

Just recently, VanZant finished construction on a new house she built in Florida while also launching her own podcast. VanZant definitely still plans on fighting again, but OnlyFans has afforded her a lifestyle and a level of success that the UFC never did.

There’s no telling how much money VanZant earned from OnlyFans in 2023, but it’s safe to assume it’s at least seven figures.

One Last Thing on BKFC

OK, BKFC is not MMA, so it doesn’t fully fit into this model for 2023, but it must be mentioned that the bare-knuckle outfit enjoyed another great year built on the back of Mike Perry becoming one of the biggest stars in combat sports. A pair of events — BKFC 41 in April and BKFC 56 in Utah — both drew huge crowds, while also earning solid sales on pay-per-views based on everything that’s been reported.

Because BKFC is a private company, there’s no way to know for certain about the financial health of the promotion, but it certainly seems like people are interested in bare-knuckle fighting. The recent card headlined by Perry against ex-UFC champion Eddie Alvarez sold more than 8,000 tickets, which is a feat no MMA organization outside of the UFC can boast.

BKFC president David Feldman later revealed that BKFC 56 sold around 100,000 pay-per-views, which is an impressive figure, although he expected much higher. Sadly, the promotion was plagued by illegal streams, which he said found 1.3 million unique IP addresses watching the event.

That’s a huge amount of fans tuning into BKFC, but unfortunately the promotion doesn’t benefit financially from most of them.

That being said, the fact that BKFC has even made it to 56 events is an impressive accomplishment, and with California recently voting to sanction bare-knuckle fighting in the state, that will open up an even bigger market for the promotion in 2024.

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