For UFC President Dana White, Thursday morning represented the culmination of a dream dating back a decade from when he was put at the helm of a sports franchise that most didn’t consider a real sport.
The UFC at that time was a fringe underground activity. Just before White and majority partners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased it, it was not just a patient that had been on life support for a couple of years, but one where the doctor was already walking into the room to pull the plug.
It was years before there was even an idea of "The Ultimate Fighter," and the idea of a sport that wasn’t even sanctioned in most of the country to be on major network television … well, that was equivalent to having to relearn to walk after a serious car accident and dreaming of winning the 100 meters at the Olympics.
And to White, Thursday’s announcement of a seven-year deal with Fox, which will include programs airing on Fox, FX and Fuel TV, was the equivalent to him walking to the podium with the medal around his neck and the national anthem playing.
"The last nine months, we’ve been hardcore aggressive going after a TV deal," White said. "We’ve bounced back-and-forth with different networks. It’s been a grueling nine months, and it’s probably taken years off my life."
"I’m beyond happy to get on the network with the NFL," he said. "But take away all the sports stuff they do. Just for the programming they have, for us to be here, it’s a great day."
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White had said earlier in the year that the biggest industry story would be how the television negotiations panned out, with the contracts for both Spike and Versus expiring at the end of 2011. Now that it’s done, he sees it even bigger.
"It’s by far the biggest deal we’ve done, ever," he said.
"I expect [business] not only to grow, but I expect it to go to another level."
There were a lot of keys to the deal, and ultimately, from day one, White said he felt Fox was the best fit for the UFC product as a network. But what had been the stumbling point in a number of television deals over the years with networks, including CBS and HBO, was alleviated when Fox agreed to give the company control of production. For much of the last nine months, NBC seemed to be the frontrunner, but negotiations recently hit a snag.
"I told you all along that we weren’t going to take a network deal unless it was the right deal," White said. "We want their input on production, but they gave us the respect saying that, 'You can do your own production.’ "
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The deal not only includes all the television shows that had been on Spike, but also adds pregame and postgame shows, which Fox and FX will be in charge of producing.
For the live fights themselves, this will mean much of the same to UFC fans in regard to Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan as the lead announcers and a similar style of show. But there will also be changes, most notably the end of the trademark Gladiator open to UFC telecasts that dates back to the company’s beginnings on Spike TV.
"I’m looking at this as a fresh start," he said. "We’re working on all kinds of different ideas. These guys are really into this and believe in the sport."
The deal, reported from various sources as being for between $90 million and $100 million per year over seven years, will more than double the rights fees the company had been getting from a combination of Spike and Versus. It’s a figure that isn’t in the league of the major sports, like the NFL, MLB, NBA, NASCAR or the PGA, and is roughly half of the NHL’s television deal.
It’s not enough, by itself, to carry an organization the size of UFC. So pay-per-view, which is estimated to have brought the company about $200 million in revenue in 2010, will still remain the company’s main revenue stream. But this gives them a lot of breathing room if injuries cause a slump in numbers, such as has happened the past few months, or technology changes affect pay-per-view buys in a negative way.
"You won’t get rich off television unless you’re somebody like the NFL," White noted.
The plan would be to use the added exposure of being on Fox to drive pay-per-view, as well as every other aspect of business, with the idea of doing live specials near pay-per-view events so they can also serve as a platform to promote the big shows.
White said they would cut back slightly on pay-per-view because of the live programming being added. The company is scheduled to hold 15 pay-per-view events this year. He said the plan for 2012 is for 13 pay-per-view events.
"I think there were a lot of keys to making this deal," White said. "This was always my dream deal. I always wanted to be with Fox. I always wanted to be in this position. We got what we wanted. What was always big to me was the production. The thing I love is they’re the No. 1 network for a reason. They’re the best at doing sports. If you look at what John Landgraf has built on FX, it’s amazing. I don’t care if you never watch FX. You know what shows are on FX. These guys are the best at promoting their shows, the best at what they do."
But there are a lot of unanswered questions, such as time slots, length of the different specials and more. Decisions on the length of live shows on Fox and FX – the three-hour length of a pay-per-view, or two hours, or a combination – is to be determined. Also to be determined is the start times of the various shows. The only thing official is that the first special on Fox would take place in Anaheim, Calif., on Saturday Nov. 12, starting at 9 p.m. ET. White said he expected the Fox specials would be airing in the future on Saturday nights. But he also said that is subject to change.
What is confirmed is that the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show on FX will air on Friday nights in prime time, debuting in March with a two-hour live special. The first show will be filled with fights of prospective fighters trying to get into the house.
White did not rule out putting some fights and fighters that may have been tentatively planned for other shows around that time frame on this show, since it’s imperative the first show has a strong lineup.
One person he did rule out appearing on the first show was the company’s biggest mainstream star, former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.
"It’s impossible," White said of Lesnar, who is coming off surgery for diverticulitis, where they removed 12 inches of his colon at the end of May. "There’s been all this of that he’s fighting, but he’s not even getting back in the gym for another three weeks. He won’t be back until early next year."
Another project White’s talked about for the past year, seems to be the last thing on his mind right now – the development of a UFC television network, similar to those many of the major sports have.
"I don’t even want to think about that," he said. "That’s not what we do."
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