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Fox Sports 1 executive raves about UFC’s impact on its network

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Chael Sonnen (R) takes down Mauricio "Shogun" Rua during their Aug. 17 fight on Fox Sports 1 (AP)

On the morning of Aug. 17, a few hours before the UFC's first fight card on Fox Sports 1, a pair of long-time mixed martial arts fans sat in the lobby of a Boston hotel, a few steps from the TD Garden where the fights would be held that night.

The men were trying to program their DVRs on their iPhones in order to record that night's fights. But they weren't sure where on the dial to find Fox Sports 1, which was making its debut that day.

That highlighted the problem that both Fox and the UFC faced in trying to promote the fight. Fox didn't get carriage deals with many of the major providers, including DirecTV, Dish Network and Time Warner Cable, until Aug. 15, just two days before the card. Fans didn't know where to find it, and many had never heard of it previously, since Fox Sports 1 was the network previously known as Speed.

Officials, both at Fox and the UFC, were bracing for the worst when the ratings came out for the card, that featured a main event of Chael Sonnen against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.

Instead, the show averaged 1.78 million viewers and peaked at 2.3 million, according to ratings from Nielsen. It was well beyond what anyone involved thought realistic.

"We were pleasantly surprised that we were able to dominate the television landscape on that night," said Bill Wanger, the Fox Sports' executive vice president of programming and research. "It's a great testament to the UFC and its fan base. If you put on a great card, which [UFC president] Dana [White] and the guys did, people will find it. That's what you need when you have a new channel; you need events that people will seek out."

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UFC president Dana White (AP)

It's a matter of perspective of whether the UFC's programming subsequent to that night is a success or not. Many critics have blasted the UFC and have pointed to lower numbers than it was pulling on FX, where it was most recently before heading to FS1, and on Spike, where it was from 2005-2011, as evidence of its decline.

But through Sept. 4, UFC programming accounts for the four most-watched shows overall on Fox Sports 1 since the Aug. 17 launch, as well as five of the top six.

White has been publicly critical of rival Bellator's ratings for its reality show, "Fight Master," which averaged under 600,000 viewers. But the premiere of Season 18 of "The Ultimate Fighter," the UFC's reality series, did only slightly better in total viewers, netting 762,000.

But White was quick to point out that TUF had many advantages. It was No. 1 on cable Wednesday among men 18 to 34 and men 18 to 49.

"We're building a network here and this is a dramatic change," White said of going from Spike to FX to Fox Sports 1. "It doesn't happen overnight or by sending out a couple of Tweets. We built Spike. Look at what we did with FX, and this isn't what they do. FX is about original programming, and we got dropped on them [temporarily] and they were unbelievably good to work with. We were able to build that and we're going to build on this.

"But that number we pulled [Wednesday] on TUF? Considering everything, that was unreal."

Wanger said he felt the ratings on TUF would improve dramatically in Season 19, because fans will have had time to build familiarity with both the time slow -- 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday nights -- and the network itself.

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Joe Rogan interviews Manny Gamburyan on Fox Sports 1 (AP)

"It will take one cycle of TUF for people to get used to the new channel and all of that," Wanger said. "It's one of the reasons we have a UFC night every Wednesday on Fox Sports 1 all year round. That's a way we can let fans know they'll get either TUF or a live fight night card, they'll get UFC Tonight, which is our live studio show or something from the [UFC fight] library."

The UFC has had a clear impact upon Fox Sports Live, the network's news and information show that is essentially its version of ESPN's SportsCenter. SportsCenter is trouncing Fox Sports Live in the ratings so far, which is hardly unexpected.

But through Sept. 4, the best-performing Fox Sports Live show came immediately after the Sonnen-Rua fight. The second highest-rated episode came right after the UFC 164 preliminaries on Aug. 31.

Wanger said he expects "significant" improvement in UFC ratings over time.

"We still haven't reached a great number of the population yet," he said. "We're still building our momentum. We're getting into college football now, so we'll start to see some numbers pop. It's going to take a couple of months for enough people to go, 'Oh, I want to watch this. I want to watch that,' and take the time to find the channel.

"Once we get to that point, and it will keep growing and growing, we do expect the numbers for these UFC fights and TUF to improve. We're off to a great start, but people are still unaware of the network or they're going, 'Oh, what channel is that again?' They'll learn it in time and then things will move."

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