Missing ingredients stir ‘TUF’ decline

When Tony Ferguson finished off Ramsey Nijem in the first round on Saturday night in Las Vegas, the lowest rated season, by far, of “The Ultimate Fighter” came to a close.

And with it comes questions about the future of the show that both made and saved the sport of mixed martial arts.

When Brock Lesnar was announced as coach for the 13th “TUF” season, it was assumed his presence would be a ratings bonanza. Like him or hate him, Lesnar had turned into a UFC gold mine. He was the company’s biggest draw on pay-per-view, tapes of his fights draw bigger than anyone else’s, and he also does some of the biggest numbers for Countdown shows building his fights.

A lack of sparks between coaches Brock Lesnar (pictured) and Junior Dos Santos didn't help "The Ultimate Fighter 13."
(Getty Images)

But instead, Season 13, not including the live finale card, averaged a 0.97 rating and 1.27 million viewers. That’s down 24 percent in ratings and 27 percent in overall viewers from Season 12, with Georges St. Pierre and Josh Koscheck as coaches.

There are a truckload of reasons that have been given, ranging in validity, regarding what caused the dropoff. Dana White has blamed it on the time slot, as the show was moved up from the familiar sport of 10 p.m. ET/PT Wednesday to 9.

Others have blamed the ratings drop on a stale show format. There is the feeling that we’ve seen it all before. The series, which first made its mark in creating a plethora of new stars, in recent years seems to live and die based on weekly tension between coaches, that builds during the season, and is resolved in a big fight.

If the problem is simply a stale format, there would be a consistent season-to-season decline in viewers. But that hasn’t yet been the case. Season 12 was one of the higher-rated seasons in history. Season 10, featuring Kimbo Slice, established series ratings records. So the issue doesn’t appear to be a show long in the tooth as much as something missing this season. Others have blamed it on the dynamic of the coaches. Throughout Season 13, there was no conflict between Lesnar and rival coach Junior Dos Santos. You almost never saw them speak, let alone ever got mad at each other. Coaches are put together with the idea of creating an explosive dynamic that will not only keep viewers interested in what they will do next, but also buy the pay-per-view fight when the season ends.

Koscheck and St. Pierre had exactly what both the promotion and Spike were looking for in a coaching combo: A protagonist and an antagonist, building conflict weekly. Most fans loved St. Pierre and hated Koscheck. Going in, both realized this and knew what they had to do.

As Koscheck prepared for his UFC 124 fight with St. Pierre while “TUF” was being broadcast, he was so heavily into training that he didn’t even watch the show he was a star on. When interviewing him, he didn’t seem at all concerned with how the editing was making him look, and only asked one question: “How are the ratings doing?” When he heard they were strong, then he seemed to feel satisfied, figuring that would mean more interest in his fight.

The most successful “TUF” seasons come together when strong rivalries, and often outright hatred, between the coaches. There was Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock in Season 3, which took the entire company to a new level. There was Matt Hughes and Matt Serra in Season 6, where there was no mistaking the two couldn’t stand each other. Rashad Evans and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson took everything even further in Season 10.

But you don’t need hatred. Frank Mir had all the respect in the world for Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. But Mir exhibited a level of cockiness that played off perfectly against Nogueira’s warmth as a coach that came through the screen to where at the end, fans still had an emotional lure to seeing them fight.

On paper, Dos Santos and Lesnar should have at least had that type of dynamic. Dos Santos, a Nogueira protege, is nice almost to a fault in person. But this led to no conflict with Lesnar, and unlike Nogueira, Dos Santos didn’t come off as an experienced coach. Lesnar is a great wrestler, and that and his remarkable athletic ability has given him success even though he’s not nearly as skilled as most top fighters in other areas. Because of his lack of all-around skills and relative inexperience, only having seven pro fights, he wouldn’t seem to be a good coach. Yet his team dominated, having three of the four semifinalists, including eventual winner Ferguson.

Season 13 also started out slow. A few personalities, most notably both finalists, and eventual consolation fight winner Chris Cope, blossomed late in the season. But in the opening weeks, you had no personalities, no fireworks between the coaches and some boring fights. You could argue that even though the season got a lot better as it went along, they had already turned off enough viewers by that time to save the show.

Even though the season was promoted harder by the network than most because of Lesnar’s involvement, there was no live event airing as the lead-in for the first episode, which traditionally brings a high level of awareness to the night overall. Interestingly, for next season, a live event is again not scheduled as the lead-in for the first episode.

Another issue is fighter quality. The Season 1 cast included eight fighters who went on to become legitimate stars, and five – Forrest Griffin, Koscheck, Kenny Florian, Diego Sanchez and Nate Quarry – who ended up challenging for championships.

But as time has gone on, the success rate of fighters coming out of the show has greatly declined. Nobody buys the premise anymore that these are the best undiscovered fighters in the country. There has been too much shortsightedness in the selection of cast members, picking people based on what they hope are personalities that will lead to ratings.

The problem is, it’s extremely rare for a cast member on the show to make a ratings difference. There are exceptions, notably Slice, who had a name coming in, and Junie Browning, who was a basket case whose downward spiral played out in front of the public.

But usually, the personalities haven’t made a difference. And if at least a few fighters from every season don’t achieve success in the UFC, in the long run no one is benefited.

The proliferation of rival promotions that have national television exposure, such as Bellator, and until recently, Strikeforce, has helped drain the show’s talent pool. Instead of going on “TUF” with no guaranteed money, the fighters who appear to have the most potential for the show are often now signing with different promotions for guaranteed cash.

The last championship challengers the show spawned, Gray Maynard and Manny Gamburyan, were back in Season 5. Since that season, only a few fighters, George Sotiropolous in Season 6; Ryan Bader in Season 8; and Roy Nelson, arguably Brendan Schaub and possibly Matt Mitrione in Season 10, could be argued are even on the cusp on stardom.

Is the show on its deathbed? When Season 4, the only season where the winners were guaranteed immediate title shots, declined greatly in the ratings from Season 3, by the usual laws of television, the show seemed in a decline and ready to be on its last legs. Instead, it’s still going, and just a few months ago, was still going strong.

That’s why writing the show off after Season 13 may be premature, as the success of recent seasons have shown.

White is talking like the show has a long way to go, with his goal to do “TUF” seasons in several different countries, and then bring all the winners into a house the following season to create a World Cup of sorts.

But without the ingredients Season 13 lacked, there may not be enough interest in this country to keep the show going long enough to ever get there.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jun 7, 2011