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St-Pierre’s UFC exit could be milestone moment for UFC, MMA

Georges St. Pierre speaks to reporters during a news conference at Radio City Music Hall, Wednesday, March 24, 2010 in New York. St. Pierre and Dan Hardy are scheduled to meet Saturday in Newark, N.J., in UFC 111 for St. Pierre's mixed martial arts title. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

After what’s seemed like a year’s worth of negotiating, it has come to this.

Georges St-Pierre, the most dominant and popular welterweight champion in the history of mixed martial arts, declared himself a free agent on The MMA Hour Monday. While St-Pierre was adamant that he was no longer bound by the language of a contract with the UFC, it’s unclear at time of publication if the figureheads at WME-IMG will honor the legendary fighter’s wish to compete elsewhere.

The Canadian superstar explains that he was in talks to return with the UFC beginning in February 2016. Recognizing some obstacles that had been created between the last time he competed in 2013 and present day, he entered negotiations with then-UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta, who offered GSP a relatively satisfactory deal that would enable him to make his comeback at UFC 206 in December.

Only the deal was revoked once Fertitta and Zuffa LLC sold the rights to the UFC off to WME-IMG in a $4 billion blockbuster sale this summer. St-Pierre’s lawyer then, based on the language of his latest contract with the UFC from 2011, issued a legal deadline for the promotion to book St-Pierre to secure him a matchup and compete. That deadline, according to St-Pierre, has passed.

“Most fighters in the UFC, they are starving. And for UFC it’s very easy when you keep a lot of your staff starving; they are easier to control,” he told Ariel Helwani Monday. “If you look at other sports like NBA, NFL, NHL — the revenue [between] athletes and owners are about 50-50. But if you look in UFC, athletes make less than 10 percent. It’s unfortunate for us, for fighters because a lot of the fighters, they don’t have the options that I have. Now I have the option to stand.”

It’s not emotional, “Rush said; it’s purely business.

Clearly, though, the repercussions of such a business move would be of major proportions. Biblical, perhaps.

Where the sport has seen names like Benson Henderson, Rory MacDonald, Chael Sonnen, Josh Thomson, Phil Davis and several others take their talents from the UFC to rival promoter Bellator MMA, St-Pierre would easily become the biggest name to enter the free agent pool. It’s not even close.

This was a man whose talent alone allowed him to headline some of the biggest UFC pay-per-views in the pre-McGregor or Rousey era.

Event  Headliner PPV Buys 
UFC 65 Hughes vs. St-Pierre II 500,000
UFC 69 St-Pierre vs. Serra 400,000
UFC 79 St-Pierre vs. Hughes III 650,000
UFC 83 St-Pierre vs. Serra II 530,000
UFC 87 St-Pierre vs. Fitch 625,000
UFC 94 St-Pierre vs. Penn II 920,000
UFC 111 St-Pierre vs. Hardy 770,000
UFC 124 St-Pierre vs. Koscheck 785,000
UFC 129 St-Pierre vs. Shields 800,000
UFC 154 St-Pierre vs. Condit 700,000
UFC 158 St-Pierre vs. Diaz 950,000
UFC 167 St-Pierre vs. Hendricks 630,000

Estimations via Dave Meltzer (h/t MMA Payout)

St-Pierre averaged about 688,000 PPV buys when headlining a UFC event.

Excluding outliers from Rousey, McGregor and the epically stacked UFC 200 event, the average PPV buyrate since GSP’s hiatus in 2013 is just over 329,000. It’s worth noting the average received a hefty buy boost thanks to the blockbuster rematch between Chris Weidman and Anderson Silva at UFC 168. Without the 1.02 million buys from that card, the average drops to 302,000 — otherwise known as a 78 percent drop in PPV revenue.

He says the UFC told him it would need to spend quite a bit of change to “reintroduce him to the new audience” given his three-year absence. Even for as foolish of a statement as that may be, it’s clear his popularity would have payed dividends.

Assuming Rousey and McGregor would have continued their successes, this would have given the UFC three different pay-per-view stars to work with on a regular basis. Given that they compete once every four months and they aren’t tasked to co-promote events with one another, that leaves only three UFC PPV cards without the aid of Rousey, McGregor or GSP in 12-month span. That’s nine months in a calendar year when the UFC would have given itself a realistic shot of hitting 1 million PPV buys.

The French-Canadian now has the chance to bring all his widespread popularity to a rival promotion in dire need of his spotlight.

Couple in the idea that all those rival promotions — including Bellator, World Series of Fighting, ONE Championship and RIZIN — would also opt to put “Rush” on cable television, rather than a PPV broadcast, and suddenly you can see the advertising revenue skyrocket. He will swiftly become the most sought-after fighter in the history of combat sports, bringing the promise of completely revitalizing a struggling promotion and creating a bonafide winner.

What’s more, it’s also plausible that St-Pierre’s mere presence offers a bit of a trickle-down effect to those competing either against him, or on the same card he’s on. Using the Canadian star as a way to negotiate a higher sponsorship payout wouldn’t be a bad way to go.

Again, it’s not entirely clear what comes next for St-Pierre. Should WME-IMG acknowledge the existent validity behind St-Pierre’s legal claims, everything changes. Perhaps for the better.

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