Stay tuned: New TV deal in U.K. will be monitored

Kevin Iole

At first blush, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's newly announced deal with a broadcast television network in the United Kingdom would seem to have no impact upon fans in the United States.

It would be understandable if U.S. fans were to say, "Who cares?" about the UFC's announcement that it reached a programming deal with FIVE, a broadcast network that is the U.K.'s equivalent of CBS.

But have no doubt that network television executives in the U.S. will be paying very close attention to how well the UFC's offerings perform in the U.K.

FIVE will broadcast a replay on free network television called "UFC Main Event," which will be a re-air of UFC pay-per-view 10 days later. The show will be a one-hour program that will broadcast the main event and as many of the undercard fights that can be squeezed into the available time.

It will debut with a replay of UFC 102 and will not only include the classic main event between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Randy Couture, that was held Aug. 29 in Portland, Ore., but also will include the Thiago Silva-Keith Jardine bout and the Nate Marquardt-Demian Maia bout, said Marshall Zelaznik, president of the UFC UK Division.

Zelaznik said there are a little more than 25 million television households in the U.K. and that FIVE reaches all of them. The shows will air at either 11 p.m. or midnight, but will be promoted heavily during FIVE's primetime lineup, when there are between 3 million and 5 million viewers at any given time.

"In the time slot we'll be on, FIVE has been averaging between 600,000 and 2.5 million viewers," Zelaznik said. "To give you a perspective of how big that is, our best-rated shows on ESPN and Setanta did just under 300,000 viewers."

Zelaznik said "UFC Main Event" will be different from "UFC: Unleashed" that airs on Spike TV in the U.S. in that entire fights will be shown and there will be no editing or amalgamation of fights.

In some cases, Zelaznik said, only the main event will be aired because of time considerations. He said there are generally 48 broadcast minutes available per hour in the U.K. A championship fight that goes the full five-round distance would essentially fill the hour.

Not every pay-per-view will be shown, Zelaznik stressed, though there will be a minimum of six per year. Zelaznik said not airing every one would make it easier for ESPN, which carries the UFC's pay-per-views live in the U.K., to sell the product.

The deal is good news for fight fans not only in the U.K., but in the U.S. and around the world. You can be assured that network television executives will be paying close attention to the ratings and the reception "UFC Main Event" receives from sponsors.

High ratings and strong advertiser acceptance will make it more likely that a U.S. network will give the UFC an opportunity.

It's a boon for the UFC in the U.K., where it has long tried to establish a foothold. Unlike in the U.S., where there is a strong penetration of cable, Zelaznik said digital cable reaches only about half of the television households in the U.K.

"We have a very loyal, hardcore fan base over here," Zelaznik said. "This allows us to reach people who haven't been willing to buy on Setanta or ESPN and who haven't found [The Ultimate Fighter]. Anyone who has a television in the U.K. will be able to see this and they'll see the best presentation of the UFC. It's only going to help us to add to our fan base here."

But a successful launch will have far-reaching implications. A successful run could help open doors to countries where the television and sports establishment still keep MMA at arm's length. And in the U.S., it will unquestionably be an impetus for a broadcast network to reach a deal with the UFC if things go well.

UFC president Dana White has repeatedly stressed he won't sign a network television deal until he gets a deal he likes. He may have multiple choices among deals should the UFC's deal on FIVE hit the jackpot.