The Ultimate Fighting Championship's first year of its broadcast partnership with Fox Sports Media Group hasn't been a ratings knockout so far, and the world's leading MMA promotion and its TV viewership are beginning to show signs of strain as the promotion tries to keep up with its expanded schedule.
Last August, UFC owners Zuffa LLC and FSMG announced a seven-year, multi-platform deal to air live and taped UFC programming through January 2019, which includes live quarterly UFC events on Fox's flagship network, 32 fight events on its cable channel FX (which includes two, 12-episode seasons of the reality series The Ultimate Fighter), as well as supplementary taped and live programming on its other cable channels like Fuel TV, Fox Deportes and its regional FSMG channels.
In its first year, this agreement has run in tandem with Zuffa's 12-14 UFC pay-per-view events schedule, but the influx of UFC events across the FOX, FX, and Fuel TV channels has exacted a toll on the Las Vegas-based, privately-owned company.
In the last eight weeks, a promotion that hadn't cancelled a single event in its 12-year existence cancelled three shows -- the result of an unexpected concentration of headline-caliber fighter injuries (which included multiple UFC champions) compounded by an increased output of shows in the last two years.
In 2010, Zuffa promoted 32 live events. In 2011, it produced 27 shows across pay-per-view, Spike TV and the Versus Network plus another 10 Strikeforce shows for Showtime, after it acquired the rival promotion that March. This year, Zuffa looks to produce 36 live events overall (only five of them Strikeforce shows) and the one-show decrease is only due to the cancellations.
In both years, Zuffa has also produced two 12-episode seasons of The Ultimate Fighter in the U.S. -- the difference this year is Zuffa also launched two more independent TUF series in Brazil and Australia.
The residual effect of this increased workload has been two-fold: UFC events have become overly plentiful on cable television and the skill level of its entry-level competitors has fallen to fill these new slots, which has created a rippling effect that has weakened the product across all platforms. The retirement of marquee stars like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and pay-per-view juggernaut Brock Lesnar during this period, without equally-as-popular fighters to fill those voids, hasn't helped either. And because of Zuffa's pacing of shows -- many times over consecutive weekends or even days -- the promotion has had less time to grow new stars and the public hasn't had enough time to connect with them.
Spreading the UFC's schedule over multiple channels, often in one night, has not only confused fans, but also made the individual fighters' trajectories more difficult to follow.
What was once special for hardcore and casual MMA fans alike has become commonplace and that will need to be remedied if the UFC has any hopes for true mainstream growth. When your core audience becomes disenchanted or even disinterested, they stop recommending the product to their friends -- hardly a way to expand viewership.
And if the ratings suggest anything in this first year, it's that there just isn't enough audience to support all of this free content, to the point where its becoming detrimental to the UFC brand.
UFC on Fox
The UFC isn't the first MMA brand to infiltrate network television, but Zuffa's seven-year relationship with Fox has already given it the most continuous presence there.
Last November, Fox launched the deal with a one-hour, single-fight live event on its network platform prior to the ambitious 2012 schedule. The UFC brand is by far the most recognizable among casual viewers, so it was expected that the show would draw big and it did. This first UFC on Fox special drew an industry-record 5.675 average viewers, peaking at 8.8 million during the 64-second title bout between heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and incumbent Junior Dos Santos. Demos in the UFC's bread-and-butter demographics were especially promising, with a 4.3 share in Males 18-34 and a 4.0 in Males 18-49. (The share represents the percentage of homes with televisions in use.)
However, the fight itself was problematic. It lasted one minute and it wasn't a complete-enough demonstration of the vast skills involved in MMA for a first-time watcher to understand the full scope of the sport. In other words, the fight wasn't sticky.
By comparison, NASCAR, once another on-the-rise niche sports franchise, began its long-term broadcast partnership on Fox with the Daytona 500 in 2001, and the death of Dale Earnhardt in the final lap simultaneously introduced and educated a nation about the dangerous realities of auto-racing on live network television.
In the days and weeks that followed, Earnhardt's death was covered vigorously by every major sports and news outlet alike. It even made the cover of Time magazine. If a sports fan wasn't aware of NASCAR before, he or she certainly knew what it was now.
In the broadcasting industry, this has been referred to as a "lightning rod" moment and Earnhardt was probably the biggest one to ever strike professional sports. That race, which was watched by 17 million viewers, instantly boosted NASCAR's notoriety and ratings, cementing it alongside the NFL, the NBA and the MLB. NASCAR and Fox enjoyed increased ratings together for the next four years.
Zuffa had prospered from its own lightning-rod moment in 2005, when light heavyweights Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar waged an emotional, all-skills-inclusive three-rounder at The Ultimate Fighter finale. This fight stuck with first-time viewers, who talked about it the following Monday at the water cooler. The bout secured Zuffa a second year on Spike TV, which launched the UFC revolution.
Lightning did not strike a second time for Zuffa last November and in the three subsequent UFC on Fox specials that have aired since then. The ratings have slid by nearly 60 percent. In August, the UFC on Fox 4 special drew 2.44 million viewers, a far cry from those 8.8 million from November, many of which were probably watching MMA for the first time.
This substantial ratings slide doesn't mean that the UFC and MMA can't gain a better footing as it attempts to transition from niche to mainstream sports, but it does mean the task will be harder and more gradual than what we saw in 2005.
This is Fox's mindset with its latest addition to the Fox Sports family.
"I don't think it's realistic for any of us to go into this and expect to see that transformation in six months or a year," said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research. "You expect it to happen over several years hoping that once you get to 2017, 2018, you really have arrived as a mainstream sport, and I believe that's where we're going to end up."
It's Mulvihill's job to analyze every piece of data available, to read and anticipate trends, and weigh the competition so he can advise when and where the network should air its sports properties for optimal success. Mulvihill does this for Fox, the Fox Sports Network, Speed, Fuel, Fox Deportes, FX and with its Big Ten Network partnership.
Mulvihill now has one year's data to assess the UFC's performance on Fox, FX, and Fuel; and he acknowledges that there are areas for improvement.
"I think we learned some lessons on the third [UFC on Fox event]," said Mulvihill. "We picked a night in May that we probably wouldn't pick again because it was such a crowded sports environment and I think that's the kind of lesson you learn when you're in year one of a seven-year deal with a sport that hasn't been on broadcast television before."
Mulvihill also understands the television infrastructure as a whole and the seasons in which programming naturally ebbs and flows based on consumer viewing habits. When you take this into account, the ratings dip doesn't seem as drastic.
"[The decreased ratings] doesn't bother me that much," he said. "When you're going to the first show being in November, a very high usage time, to the fourth show being in August against the Olympics, we plan for a drop. If we were seeing a drop from August to November, that would be troubling."
The Ultimate Fighter Spirals Downward on FX
The FX relaunch of The Ultimate Fighter, the reality TV series widely credited for the UFC's explosion in 2005, has, thus far, been unable to produce the solid ratings the long-running show enjoyed on Spike TV. Last March, FX and Zuffa shifted the show's 15th season to a challenging live format as it moved from Wednesday to Friday nights, but the ratings have steadily declined.
The Ultimate Fighter averaged 1.7 million viewers during its seven-year run on Spike TV (the 10th season with Kimbo Slice averaged a series-high 3 million viewers), but the TUF Live season dipped to one million average viewers on FX from March to June -- its lowest-rated season to date.
The show returned to its pre-taped format for its 16th season debut six weeks ago, with its debut episode netting 947,000 viewers. The season's first four episodes weren't disastrous for FX, as they placed respectively among the target demos, but the fifth week's episode hit a series-low 624,000 viewers and became the first TUF episode ever not to place among the top 100 cable shows that night. This downward trend is alarming.
After 15 seasons, it appears the series has run its course, though its placement on Friday nights, when its core male demographics typically aren't in front of the television, hasn't given the show optimal means to grow its audience either.
The sinking ratings were enough for FX to take action. FX executive vice president Chuck Saftler announced on Oct. 17 that the show would be moved off Fridays when it returns next spring with UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and mouthy middleweight opportunist Chael Sonnen as its stars.
"We've learned once again that in our business you have to make it easy for viewers to find your programming," said Mulvihill this week, via email. "In the end I think the combination of a lower TV usage night and different network was just too much change, even for the loyal UFC audience. We're studying our options earlier in the week and I think we can find a home for the show where it will have a better chance to succeed."
Live events have done comparatively better for FX. Five live UFC on FX events this year have held steady with an average 1.24 viewers, while viewership for UFC pay-per-view preliminary cards on FX have averaged 1.22 million viewers -- fluctuating between 880,000 and 1.8 million viewers over 11 events.
Fuel Sees Gains
Where the UFC-Fox partnership has been an unequivocal success, in terms of ratings at least, is on Fuel TV. Since adding 2,000 hours of live and taped UFC programming to its schedule starting last August, the Fox-owned cable specialty channel has seen a 50 percent rise in total viewers, an astronomical 164 percent in its 2012 primetime viewership, and three-digit percentage gains across the key male demographics.
On Aug. 4, Fuel's viewership reached an all-time peak of 328,000 during its UFC on Fox prelims broadcast, according to the network. These are phenomenal gains for a channel with a relatively limited reach of 36 million homes. Still, it's only a portion of the audience that watched comparable UFC content on Spike TV, which is available in nearly 100 million homes.
It's apparent that the UFC's fifth show on Fox will be an important one. As the third and fourth show ratings were expected to drop because of decreased viewership in the summer and competitors including the Olympics, there will be anticipation for a ratings spike for UFC on Fox 5, which airs on Dec. 8.
"I tend to look at the first two [UFC on Fox] specials as more indicative of the potential of the sport, rather than the most recent two," Mulvihill said.
Those shows had average viewership between 4.7 and 5.675 million, not insurmountable numbers given how Zuffa is stacking the card with potential breakout stars like underrated lightweight champion Benson Henderson and characters like the hardened Nate Diaz. If the last two years of overly concentrated UFC content has done lasting damage to MMA's overall mainstream crusade, we'll begin to see it here in these ratings.
And even if UFC on Fox 5 doesn't rebound to the proposed range, it won't mean Fox is ready to throw in the towel just yet.
"Part of our job is to take the long view," Mulvihill said. "There's a reason that we don't do this as a one or two-year deal. You do it as a seven-year deal because, fundamentally, you have confidence a) in the product and b) in our ability as a company to develop the platforms for it and the marketing around it that will lead to that mainstream acceptance."