CBS and NBC are talking with mixed martial arts promotions about becoming the first major broadcast network to televise the sport.
Nothing is official, but television and MMA insiders expect a deal between CBS and the Ultimate Fighting Championship to be announced shortly.
UFC president Dana White said he didn't want to discuss a deal that is still being negotiated, but White did say that UFC 80 on Jan. 19 would be a pay-per-view event. It had been rumored that would be the first CBS show if a deal was reached.
MMA insiders believe CBS is looking at a Saturday night prime-time slot. CBS averaged a 4.5 rating in prime time on Nov. 24, a number no UFC event has approached. However, major UFC events such as Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz in 2006 and this year's Dan Henderson vs. Quinton Jackson Pride vs. UFC title unification match have beaten all network programming in the highly sought 18-34 male demographic despite airing on basic cable's Spike TV.
The Henderson-Jackson fight did a 5.7 in that demo. In males 18-49, it beat everything on both cable and network for the day, including a slew of major college football games. The right fight with the right hype could be a strong vehicle for advertisers to target young males, which CBS, an older-skewing network, is looking to capture.
The highest rating a UFC event has ever drawn is a 3.1, for both the aforementioned shows. Otherwise, the highest-rated Ultimate Fighter finals on Spike have done 2.0 ratings. That's a big success for Spike, but it would be a failure on CBS.
While being on network television would in theory greatly increase the audience over Spike, there are other factors. For Spike, a major UFC event is the biggest event on the station and is promoted heavily. That would not be the case with CBS. But the event likely would get far more mainstream media attention, particularly a first-ever type of event.
UFC's balancing act
A network special would be something of a mixed blessing for UFC. A huge match would draw the best ratings, but the company would be sacrificing a lucrative pay-per-view headliner. Still, there is a prestige factor that comes with being on a network, and far more people would see the product than ever before, thus creating the best opportunity to make new fans. White has said repeatedly that a lack of big fights on free television kept boxing from developing its fan base.
Sacrificing one key pay-per-view match to allow the masses to see the product is a solid strategy. But it's important the show does well. If it doesn't, the networks could conclude mixed martial arts doesn't have wide enough appeal to do network-level ratings, as has happened with boxing. Given the unpredictable nature of sports, fights in particular, it is a roll of the dice.
UFC's current deal with Spike TV gives Spike basic cable exclusivity, but UFC can pursue deals with broadcast networks as well as premium cable, such as HBO.
UFC is working on four major early 2008 shows, but there is nothing on the schedule that looks like a potential CBS debut. A Jan. 23 date is confirmed for Spike TV. The Saturday night before the Super Bowl, which is expected to feature a heavyweight championship fight as well as the debut of former pro wrestler Brock Lesnar, is traditionally a major pay-per-view event. A March 1 date headlined by Anderson Silva vs. Dan Henderson for the middleweight title is also earmarked as a pay-per-view.
While CBS is focused on building a long-term relationship, NBC's interest is more tenuous. The network is looking for programming to fill the 11:30 p.m. Saturday Night Live time slot during the writers strike, the settlement of which could easily spell the end of NBC's interest in the sport.
Ben Silverman, the head of NBC's entertainment division, asked for a full study on the viability of MMA on the network, including contacting key advertisers to gauge their support. The results were positive, and even with UFC, the only group which has consistently delivered good ratings, out of the picture, they've continued talks with other promotions.
According to those familiar with the negotiations, a major issue with the NBC deal as it was structured is that NBC was offering commercial time to sell instead of a flat fee. None of the MMA promotions have the kind of advertising staff to be able to maximize revenue from that type of deal.
For MMA companies that in many cases are already losing a significant amount of money, a network deal would expose their brand to the largest possible audience. In doing so, the company would spend more money producing a major show, but every promoter is trying to reach UFC status, and the opportunity to close that gap is like manna from heaven.
"I come from TV, so we are exploring everything," said Jay Larkin, the CEO of the International Fight League, who previously worked with Showtime. "NBC and others have also been talking to different MMA organizations. MMA will absolutely be on major broadcast television. It is inevitable. It's just a question of who goes first, and at this point it appears it will be CBS with UFC."
But that puts IFL, whose primary goal is cutting financial losses ($17.5 million in the first nine months of 2007), and Elite XC ($20 million over that same time period) in a quandary: A network deal would give their brands more exposure than ever, but they will have to pay even more to get it.
Those two groups, along with M-1 Global, have engaged in talks with NBC. It has not been confirmed whether San Jose-based Strikeforce has as well.
- Spike TV