Though Zuffa President Dana White denies that a deal is done, many sources have reported that the UFC has at least reached a handshake arrangement with global network TV giant FOX. While the ink hasn’t dried, if in fact it has even been put on the paper yet, the implications of such a deal would be monumental for the UFC and MMA as a whole. For reference, EliteXC managed to bring in over 6.5 million peak viewers with an average of over four million views to its EliteXC: Kimbo vs. Thompson card (also known as EliteXC: Primetime) that aired on NBC in 2008, the highest rated MMA broadcast ever. The UFC has never managed to bring over one million average viewers to Versus or Spike with a single card. That is the power of a network TV deal. EliteXC, an organization that was barely considered to be at the Bellator level, managed to pull four million more views to “Kimbo Slice” Kevin Ferguson (4-2) than the UFC did on Spike TV with his appearance on The Ultimate Fighter. Imagine what the ratings will be when the Zuffa hype and marketing machine backs Brock Lesnar (5-2) or “Rush” Georges St. Pierre (22-2) to headline a card on everyone’s local FOX station. While one could hardly hope for the 106 million viewers the Superbowl pulls in, the 11.6 million that tuned into the NFC Wildcard game last year is hardly unrealistic for a Pay-Per-View level UFC event. What this means is that MMA isn’t fighting to be mainstream, it is mainstream – and now there may be a direct comparison between the NFL, the NBA, MLB, the NHL, and the UFC.
There are several variations of the deal floating about on the internet and, as it is with most rumors, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. However, they all seem to say the same basic thing: the UFC will air four events a year on the FOX broadcast networks, the same place that Monday Night Football calls home, while shoulder programs such as UFC Unleashed, Ultimate Knockouts, The Best of PRIDE and The Ultimate Fighter will air weekly on FX with support from the Fuel TV network. This would mean that the UFC’s overall exposure would be greatly increased, as FX alone averages double the primetime weekly viewership of Spike. With an event on live network TV every three months, possibly airing just after NCAA or NFL Football in the fall and MLB baseball or NBA Basketball in the spring and summer, the room for growth will have hit its peak, allowing MMA fans to finally see just how big the sport can get.
The benefits of a deal like this one are numerous. It’s more than just another $90 million a year for the UFC to pump into development, fighter pay, scouting, and the industry as a whole. It’s more than just a massive pipeline to bring more new fans to the sport. It’s a plethora of opportunities for the industry as a whole. Small MMA clothing and life style companies will have a much larger customer base to ply their trade to as more people develop something greater than a passing interest in the sport. Fighters will make much larger sums of money as the increased exposure allows them to develop larger and larger sponsorship deals and, by extension of the same increased ad revenue, the purses from the UFC will likely increase exponentially as well. MMA is a business like any other – it recycles money as the fans pay the UFC who pays the fighter who buys gear and sells his endorsement and the clothing company pays the UFC and the fighters for advertising. A lot of the same money goes around. A new untapped source of income will add the pool and thus increase salaries and payouts all around while potentially lowering costs to the fans themselves. Everybody wins when new money is pumped into the system. However, it’s not all wine and roses for MMA or the UFC.
Some of the unhappy truths that may or may not come to life for MMA fans is that they may find the ceiling of what MMA is capable of achieving and that ceiling may be much lower than fans would like to admit. The UFC will also face counter programing from the other big networks who have nasty weapons to bring to bear such as popular competition shows or other live sporting events such as NBA and MLB games. While this is hardly an issue on a weekly basis on the cable channels (after all, TUF airs the same time as several highly rated network shows but still fills it’s niche’ nicely on the cable side) it would not do for the UFC to have a network card beaten by a regular season game or a primetime reality series finale. This could very well lead to the Network dropping the UFC after its deal is done and shattering MMA fans’ dreams of their sport one day doing what boxing never could: compete with the major sports of baseball, basketball, hockey, and football. The deal will bring a lot of new fans to MMA, new money and endorsements to both fighters and the sport, and a new respect from the mainstream sports media, but the question still remains, is it too soon for MMA to get on the nation’s biggest stage? We may soon find out.