Hoping to challenge ESPN, Fox betting big on UFC

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

Fox Sports wants to compete directly with ESPN, and one of the staples of its plan will be its UFC programming. 

Tuesday's announcement of the creation and Aug. 17 launch of Fox Sports 1, which will feature Major League Baseball, soccer, college football and basketball and NASCAR in addition to the UFC, is the culmination of Dana White's dreams. 

For more than two years since announcing his company's broadcast partnership with Fox Sports, the UFC president has alluded to a game-changing moment coming down the road.

On Tuesday, when that game-changer became a reality, White was literally giddy.

"This is such a great day for us, I can't even begin to tell you," White saidover and over during a telephone interview with Yahoo! Sports. "This is a massive step. I said a year-and-a-half ago when we did this deal that our next two years of work would be more important than the first 13. And now, it's always clicking and all becoming a reality."

[Also: Next wave of female UFC fighters have high hopes for future of their division]

After a Fox-run news conference in New York on Tuesday to announce FS1, White, UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, middleweight champion Anderson Silva and women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey were brought on stage and introduced to 1,300 major advertisers.

It was the kind of exposure White could only dream of less than a decade before. But now, here were executives from some of the world's most familiar brands roaring like fan boys when Velasquez, Silva and Rousey were introduced.

It sent a powerful visual, with a black man, a Hispanic man and a white woman being received so well by potential advertisers and sponsors: The UFC cuts across all races and genders.

Eric Shanks, the Fox Sports Media Group's COO and co-president, shared his vision of FS1 with White and his partners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta when they first began to discuss a partnership.

The launch of FS1 will allow viewers to find virtually all UFC programming in one place. As the first year of the UFC-Fox partnership played out, they had to deal with the fallout from the promotion's former broadcast deal with Spike, as well as educate fans on which of the Fox networks would carry which shows.

Now, with the exception of the four cards a year that will appear on the broadcast network Fox, all UFC programming will be found on FS1.

When the viewers finally get used to finding all UFC-related content on FS1, it should significantly boost the promotion's rapidly improving ratings.

"When we began talking with Dana, Lorenzo and Frank almost three years ago now, they were really the first to hear the inkling of an idea of Fox Sports 1," Shanks said. "We said, 'Look, together we can make the UFC front and center on a national sports network that is going to be cleared in almost 100 percent of the country.' The UFC really bought into our concept years ago of what we were trying to do with [FS1].

" ... This is one of the final major levers to pull, because now everything is finally in one place. Dana and Lorenzo have been saying for a long time that fans, honestly, in that first year were a bit confused. Some of it was on Fuel, some was on FX and some was on Fox. This is really that last lever to pull, and it puts everything in one place. It's going to be huge going forward, starting off Aug. 17, and we're kicking off with a prime-time fight that night." White would not discuss whether the announcement applies to the reality series "The Ultimate Fighter," saying, "We're not ready to talk about that yet." "TUF" is currently in its second season on FX.

[Also: Jon Jones welcomes new contender — his newborn daughter]

White is a long-time boxing fan and has dreamed of having a national fight night kind of like what the "Tuesday Night Fights" were on the USA Network in the 1980s and 1990s. That series featured some of boxing's greatest stars in compelling matches. 

The deal with FS1 will bring that vision to reality for White. Starting with the network's launch on Aug. 17, the shows that would have been on Fuel and FX previously will now be on FS1. The opener will be on a Saturday, but the majority of those will be on Wednesdays.

When the UFC has a pay-per-view event or is on Fox, the preliminaries will all be shown on FS1.

FS1 will be in more than 90 million homes at launch. Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp., which owns Fox, dreams of the network competing with, or surpassing ESPN.

That may be impossible to do, given the sheer magnitude of ESPN and its deals with the NFL, MLB, NBA and throughout college sports.

But ESPN doesn't have UFC programming and that will be a boon for FS1. Though the total viewership numbers for its live fight cards haven't been overwhelmingly large, the UFC has delivered for Fox in the coveted demographic of 18-to-34-year-old and 18-to-49-year-old males.

That's happened across all three of the networks – Fox, FX and Fuel – and Shanks believes it's only going to increase once the public is familiar with FS1. Saturday's UFC on Fuel 8 show from Japan attracted an average of 485,000 viewers, nearly double the previous UFC record on Fuel and making it the most-watched program in network history.

[Also: Mark Hunt breaks Stefan Struve's jaw at UFC on Fuel 8]

Shanks insisted that there is no fear of over saturating the market – "Does anyone say there is too much NFL out there," he said, noting the UFC's numbers are trending in the right direction.

"We're still building fans," Shanks said. "We're building the right generation of fans, in this concentration of the 18-to-34 [demographic]. What's going to happen when those fans move into the next [demographic], which they will, and you still have a new generation of fans coming in?

"If you are looking at a bell curve of sports, the UFC is clearly on the left side of the bell curve, heading straight up. If you're building something, you obviously want to build with the youngest possible demo. There are other sports that would fall all over themselves to get that concentration of young men the UFC gets."

The UFC's deal with Fox runs through 2018, but White is already eager to sign an extension.

"Give me another 22 years," he said. "We love this. These people are the best in the business at what they do and they have been phenomenal partners. I couldn't have asked for anything better. What you see now is just the beginning of what is to come."

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