Strikeforce closes in on late-night NBC slot

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Multiple industry sources have confirmed that the second mixed martial arts promotion about to make it to network television, once again, is not the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

It is believed NBC and the San Jose, Calif. based Strikeforce promotion are very close to an agreement for a 52-week commitment for a Saturday night weekly program that is tentatively slated to start on April 12.

But the deal isn't as significant as it first sounds, because the show is being slotted for a 2 a.m. time slot.

Current NBC programming in that time slot averages 857,000 viewers.

Those are hardly numbers you associate with network programming, but from an exposure standpoint, the numbers are in the range of the audience for UFC's weekly Unleashed episodes on Spike TV, which features an hour of taped fights. It is also significantly more viewers than have witnessed any MMA fights on Showtime.

The working plan is for a 30-minute show, with early episodes being used to highlight the top fighters in the promotion, such as Frank Shamrock and Cung Le. Two months into the run, Strikeforce will begin airing tapes of relatively current matches. In that sense, the show will be similar to UFC Unleashed or its companion Wired show, which airs in national syndication; or to PRIDE and IFL shows that air as on FOX Sports Net.

"The NBC deal isn't signed," said Strikeforce president Scott Coker, who did confirm negotiations taking place. "There definitely is dialogue going on but it's still an ongoing process."

Strikeforce would follow on the heels of Elite XC, which signed a contract for quarterly live prime time specials on Saturday nights on CBS.

One figure involved with another mixed martial arts company that had also talked with NBC, said the problem is NBC was not willing to spend much money to get into the MMA game, nor willing to make a strong time slot commitment.

On the other hand, by being in a late-night time slot, the pressures of performing immediately aren't as strong as it will be for Elite XC, which will have pressure to draw several million viewers right out of the box in prime time on CBS or be considered a flop.

Strikeforce has been the most successful live show producer of the non-UFC mixed martial promotions currently active in North America, with several shows drawing more than 10,000 fans, using San Jose-based fighters Shamrock and Le as the headliners.

Its next show, a co-promotion with Elite XC on March 29 from the HP Pavilion in San Jose, pits the two big stars against each other in what Coker calls his company's Super Bowl match. Shamrock defends his Strikeforce middleweight title against Le in a five-round fight that airs live on Showtime.

The match may be one of the highest-rated non-UFC fights ever on U.S.

television. Shamrock's two fights on Showtime last year against Renzo Gracie (which he lost via disqualification) and Phil Baroni (which he won via choke) rank only behind the February 16 Kimbo Slice vs. Tank Abbott match as drawing the biggest MMA ratings in its 13 month history on Showtime.

Shamrock still holds the North American record for the largest paid attendance for an MMA show when 17,465 paid as part of a sellout crowd at the HP Pavilion for a March, 2006 match with Cesar Gracie.

The current high mark for UFC was 17,358 fans for last year's Randy Couture vs. Tim Sylvia match in Columbus, OH. The UFC show on April 19 in Montreal headlined by Matt Serra vs. Georges St. Pierre is expected to break that record.

It appears that attendance record, drawn partially more by the novelty of the first major MMA event in a major arena in California, may be unapproachable even for this far bigger fight matching the two most popular local fighters.

"I'm shooting for the $1 million mark," said Coker, a mark that no promotion besides the UFC and Pride has ever done in North America.

"We're not the 800-pound gorilla (UFC). We're not in Las Vegas and can't charge the ticket prices they do. We're in shooting distance for sure."

Strikeforce's most recent card, on Feb. 23 in Tacoma, drew a crowd of 7,089 and set a Washington state gate record for combat sports at $283,000.