Is a long-awaited "right deal" approaching the UFC for network TV exposure? Maybe, but don't set your Tivo just yet.
"Wrong deal" was president Dana White's constant refrain last year when EliteXC became the first mixed martial arts promotion to cinch a deal with CBS, and earlier, when his company met with HBO executives to discuss the possibility of showing fights on the premium cable leader.
White would not get into any deal that put the UFC at a disadvantage. The deal, he said, "had to make sense." The promotion would not pay to be on the networks, (they had done that once already with cable). Nor would they accept substandard licensing fees. And with the promotion's pay-per-view business doing huge numbers, there was no rush.
Last October, EliteXC folded under massive debt and Strikeforce took up its deal with Showtime networks, including an option under CBS to broadcast an undisclosed number of fights.
White continued to promise a network deal was pending, but made no announcements of such.
News of a new TV deal with ESPN U.K. prompted more speculation that a deal was pending with ABC, ESPN's sports broadcasting partner.
"We've never had more interest than right now," said White during a Friday teleconference announcing the ESPN U.K. deal. "Obviously, I think all the hard work we've done over nine years and UFC 100 had a big part in it, too. I'm pretty confident we're gonna have a deal very, very soon. I like what I'm hearing now more than I ever did before."
White said he had never stopped talking with the networks, and renewed his promise to get the Octagon on free TV. But while he liked what he heard, the promotion wasn't ready to commit. The refrain was back.
"Once we get the right offer, we will be on network television," said White. "We haven't had the right offer, yet."
The most well known of stumbling blocks to taking a UFC show network -- broadcast control -- was not the issue it once was, said White.
"That was just an HBO issue," he said. "But you know what my position on that, nobody does it better than we know how to do it."
White also believed a deal would not hinder the company's pay-per-view business, its biggest moneymaker.
"I don't think it would change it much," he said. "We'd still do it the same. The thing about us is, if we get a network deal, we're putting serious fights on network TV. That's one of my big beefs with boxing... once everything went to the pay model they stopped putting good fights on free TV for the fans. I'm big into that."
Just how the UFC will manage that, with one and sometimes two pay-per-view cards per month and up to a half dozen UFC Fight Night cards on Spike TV every year, will be an interesting issue. White said he has the athletes to make it happen -- some 300 by his count, including a slew of talent from the now defunct Affliction fight promotion.
Now, the networks need to convince him they can do it. The UFC wants it to happen, but on their terms.
"Listen, we get a network television deal, it's gonna be so awesome for the fans," said White. "It's going to be great for the network, great for the fans, and great for the UFC."