White, UFC reach next level with groundbreaking Fox deal
LOS ANGELES -- Zuffa LLC, parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and Fox jointly announced on Thursday a seven-year broadcast deal that will see distribution of live and taped mixed martial arts programming across the broadcast network's multiple television platforms beginning in January 2012.
In the largest and most sweeping TV deal achieved by an MMA promotion to date, Fox will air four live UFC events on its flagship channel per year, 32 live fights on its cable channel FX, as well as supplementary taped and live programming on its other cable channels, including Fuel TV, Fox Deportes and its FSMG channels.
The Sports Business Journal's John Ourand, who first broke news of the monumental agreement earlier this week, reported that Fox will pay Zuffa around $100 million per year for the programming package. Fox executives wouldn't comment on the figure.
The first live UFC event on Fox will air in Saturday primetime on Nov. 12, which marks the 18th anniversary of the promotion, as well as the sport itself, in the United States. UFC President Dana White said the event could take place at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., which last hosted UFC 121 in October 2010.
FX will become the new home of "The Ultimate Fighter," the reality series launched on Spike TV in January 2005, which is often credited for the sport's explosion in popularity. After a major revamping, the show's 15th season will debut in spring 2012 on FX, which is available in nearly 100 million homes.
TUF's new format will include same-week editing and live fights during each episode over the season's three-month duration leading up to the traditional live finale, as well as an interactive component where viewers can vote on the matchups they want to see among the 16 competitors along the way.
In addition to TUF's two-season, 26-episode run each year, FX will also host six live Fight Night events, where "we'll literally own Friday nights with live UFC fighting," said Fox Sports Media Group Co-President Eric Shanks.
White, who recently scored a social media coup by airing the UFC's preliminary pay-per-view fights for free on Facebook, said the "Prelims Live" program could find its home at Fuel.
Shanks said the network will also provide pre- and post-event coverage in conjunction with the four events on Fox featuring its own in-house sports analysts. Zuffa will continue to produce the fight events, the reality series and its own original complementary programming across all platforms, said Fox Sports Media Group Chairman David Hill, bucking other networks' previous edicts that they retain control of production if a deal were to be made.
"This is what I always felt was the pinnacle for us here in the United States, was to get a deal with Fox," said White, "not just to be on the No. 1 network in the country, but to be on the network with all the other real big sports -- the NFL, Major League Baseball, NASCAR, etc. It's going to take the sport to the next level."
The partnership is not a new one. In 2002, Fox Sports Net aired the first live UFC fights on the "Best Damn Sports Show Period" -- a milestone at the time for a sport relegated to the pay-per-view platform only.
Although a deal couldn't be reached then, Fox honcho Hill said the network kept communications open with the promotion, monitoring its brand growth on Spike TV over the last seven years, particularly "its explosive growth" among the Male 18-34 demographic. The UFC has also had broadcast agreements with individual Fox affiliates in Australia and Latin America during that time.
"We look at numbers and we approached this like any other sport," said Hill. "What are the trends? Is it trending up or trending down? This [deal] is like getting into baseball or basketball 10 years after it was launched. I've been covering sports for a hell of a long time and to me, this is the most unique opportunity I've ever seen in my life."
The UFC and the sport stand to reach its largest audience yet with the four live Fox telecasts. Though Zuffa won't be the first promotion to grace a Saturday primetime slot on network television -- Strikeforce and EliteXC garnered as high as 6.5 million viewers during its peak fights on CBS -- the UFC brand is the most familiar among casual fans.
"There may be championship [fights] on some of [the Fox events], but I can tell you that we're going to deliver big fights on the broadcast network, fights that matter and mean something. There's a lot hanging on the line," said UFC majority owner Lorenzo Fertitta.
Hill said no stipulations were made during negotiations regarding the caliber of card the promotion would need to produce for network television.
"They understand the power of the network platform," said Hill. "The more people watching on the network, the more that will buy the pay-per-views. It all flows. We knew we didn't have to say a word when we were negotiating, because it's in [the UFC's] best interest to have the best possible fights because it fuels the market."
UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar said the promotion's new platform legitimizes MMA even further.
"We're now with the NBA, the NFL. We're not second-class anymore," said Edgar.
Zuffa will end its seven-year relationship with Spike TV following TUF's 14th season at the end of this year. Fertitta also confirmed that the company had explored purchasing and re-branding its own network -- NBC/Comcast's G4 and Fuel were in the running -- but felt the Fox route would be the most fruitful.
The world's leading fight promotion acquired a broadcast partnership with premium-pay channel Showtime and an optional deal with its sister network CBS from its March purchase of the rival Strikeforce brand, though signs indicate that arrangement won't be extended past its expiration in early 2012.
White called the move to Fox "a fresh start" for the company.
"Coming to Fox now, everything's going to change, including the pay-per-view," said White. "I want to change the look -- the graphics, the show's open, the open for the fight nights. Everything's going to have a different feel to it. There's going to be millions and millions of people seeing the UFC for the first time. It's going to be fun putting this all together over the next few months."