The UFC and Fox officially announced Thursday a multi-year deal that will give the promotion and the sport the greatest level of exposure in its history.
The deal will include four live events per year on the Fox network, the first time the 18-year-old UFC will have appeared on a major network. The first event is set for Nov. 12 at 6 p.m. PT in Anaheim, Calif. No matches were announced for the UFC show, however it will go head-to-head with one of boxing's biggest events of the year: Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez on pay-per-view.
Previously, when the UFC was televised on Spike TV, most live events aired on tape delay on the West Coast in order to get a prime-time slot in what has traditionally been UFC's strongest market.
Another big change is that "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show will move to Friday nights, and the fights themselves will be live. Unlike in the past, where the complete season was taped over a six-week period and aired months later, live bouts are part of the new format.
Filming each season will now double to 12 weeks. The program also will have the added dynamic of the two coaches joining their teams in heavy training, since the season will be a real-time countdown to the coaches' fight at season's end.
Each episode will include footage taped during the week prior to the air date, building up to the live match or matches.
While nothing was officially stated regarding the Fox specials, the first of which will be on a Saturday, part of the deal will be to brand Friday nights on FX as "UFC night," with as many as 32 different live events starting in January, when the contract goes into place.
"It's a deal that touches all aspects of the Fox Sports Media Group," said Eric Shanks, co-president of Fox Sports. We'll have four massive shows on the broadcast network, 32 live fights a year on FX along with two seasons of 'The Ultimate Fighter' each year. We will own Friday night with live UFC fighting."
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The move to Friday puts the UFC in direct competition with its rival entertainment product, World Wrestling Entertainment, which airs "SmackDown" on the Syfy channel the same night. There are major similarities, but even more major are the differences between the two products. The initial growth of the UFC in 2005 came largely because it aired on Spike immediately following WWE programming. It retained a huge percentage of the WWE's male audience ages 18-34, which in turn became the UFC's prime audience and base for its spectacular growth.
While both brands publicly note the difference between sport and entertainment, WWE's pay-per-view numbers have declined at the same time the UFC's have increased, and even WWE President Vince McMahon has acknowledged that its pay-per-views take a hit when on the same weekend as a UFC event, something they now do their best to avoid. In addition, the few times the two brands have gone head-to-head on television in the past, the ebb-and-flow of viewers coming and going from each show almost perfectly coincides, indicating a statistically significant "swing" audience.
The deal on FX would consist of 24 episodes of "The Ultimate Fighter," two "TUF" finales, which are essentially live fight cards, and four to six "Fight Night" shows, similar to those that aired on Spike and Versus.
FX also would air the same type of programming that had previously aired on Spike. That would include taped episodes of "Unleashed," "Ultimate Knockouts," "Best of The Pride Fighting Championships," as well as shows like "Countdown" and "Prime Time" that are the promotional vehicles for pay-per-view, which is still the UFC's primary revenue stream.
No financial terms were announced for the deal, which has been reported to be worth between $90 million-$100 million annually. It would be nearly triple the estimated $35 million-per-year deal the company had with Spike, its home since breaking into regular TV in '05. " 'The Ultimate Fighter' Season 14 in September will be our last," said Spike TV in a statement sent just before the Fox deal was announced. " … Our six-year partnership with the UFC has been incredibly beneficial in building both our brands, and we wish them all the best in the future."
Actually, the UFC and Spike have been together – and really synonymous in many people's minds – for seven years. The programming is the textbook example of the value of television in building a sport.
The UFC, purchased in 2001 by Las Vegas casino magnates Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, lost an estimated $44 million in its first four and a half years and struggled on pay-per-view with the exception of a few events that would show a glimpse of hope.
With television, pay-per-view numbers immediately tripled and increased exponentially from that. In recent years, the UFC has set records for the most pay-per-view buys of any sports organization in history.
"We're excited to be part of the Fox family," said UFC President Dana White. "The UFC is finally where it belongs, on the No. 1 network in the country, and aligned with the most prestigious sports properties in the world. I've always said that the UFC will be the biggest sport in the world and with this relationship, it will become a reality."
"There is no yesterday in TV," said Fox Chairman David Hill. "We first started talking 10 years ago. Lorenzo said something then. He said what boxing was to my generation is what UFC will be and is to the next generation. TV can't make a sport. The people have to speak. What Dana, Frank and Lorenzo have done is taken a little niche sport and in 10 years have made it into a mainstream sport. The key was recognizing what the people wanted. It's the ultimate democratic thing."
The deal is a win-win in the sense the company is getting much more money as well as a major increase in exposure. FX is a significantly higher-rated network than Spike, and FOX specials in prime time should give the UFC a television audience at levels it's never had in the past.
In theory, the larger TV audience should help drive pay-per-view numbers, along with increases in all other revenue streams. The only danger is if there is a satiation point for the sport, as 32 live events on FX, four more on FOX and pay-per-view (15 are scheduled for 2011) means a live event virtually every week. Plus, Zuffa has a contract for 16 events per year on Showtime for the Strikeforce brand.
Some have said the reality show has become long in the tooth after 14 years of the same basic format, but a switch to a live show in real time might invigorate it. The jury is still out on its long-term popularity. Some point to the most recent season, the lowest rated in "TUF" history, as evidence the show is in decline. But the season before that, in the fall and winter of 2010, was among its highest rated. The lesson appears to be that the ratings are more about a strong rivalry between coaches and the presence of colorful fighters.
The most recent season, airing earlier this year, featured the company's top draw, Brock Lesnar, and didn't have that dynamic with Junior Dos Santos the way top-rated seasons did with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Rashad Evans, Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock and Georges St. Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck.
"[The] UFC's growth over the past decade is nothing short of phenomenal, and it has become one of the marquee sports in the country," said John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX. "There is a reason for its rising popularity. It features some of the greatest athletes in the world, and we believe it will be a terrific addition to our schedule and look forward to our relationship."
Hill, the Fox chairman, said the deal was justified because UFC is popular with a young demographic.
"It's that demo that grows the sport," he said. "When you look at every sport, that is the key demo. When you look at the figures that the UFC is pulling in that demo, it's incredible."
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