Five years ago Monday, The Ultimate Fighter debuted on Spike TV and changed the trajectory of a sport. For as much impact as Zuffa had in popularizing mixed martial arts and the UFC, it could be argued that no group is more integral to the sport's turnaround than the brass at a fledgling cable network attempting to establish itself as a bastion for all things male.
Brian Diamond, an executive who helped launch MTV, considered programming K-1 or Pride events on Spike TV in 2004, but decided without an educated audience there wasn't much of a point. Today, as it gears up for season 11 of "The Ultimate Fighter," Spike TV boasts one of the most loyal, educated audiences in television.
Speaking with SI.com last Friday at a Television Critics Association event in Pasadena, Calif., Diamond, the senior vice present of sports/specials for Spike TV, discussed what fans should expect in 2010 and beyond.
SI.com: There's going to be so much MMA on television in 2010. By my estimation, at least 100 live cards. What's your hope for the coming year? Is it just continued good ratings?
Brian Diamond: Without a doubt, but it's also growing the sport in so many different ways. I think from a business perspective it's like bringing in more folks from the advertising community, introducing new people to the sport. I think Kimbo Slice did a lot of that for us because of his pop-culture status. It brought a lot of people to the table -- maybe some of those folks will fall off because he's not on [the next season of The Ultimate Fighter], maybe some will come back. I think Chuck and Tito play right into that realm now because they're starting to be pop-culture icons outside of the sport itself. Anything to grow that audience and bring in new people to watch the sport is great for everybody. The funny thing is we go into each year with a basic battle plan, and then something changes or something comes up. The UFC prelims that we're doing now, which everyone seems to love. We're adding fights here or there and doing stuff. We're shooting TUF 11 within the next 10 days; I'm so brain dead I can't remember when. The expectation for us is to always challenge ourselves to see what we can do next with this thing that'll bring it to an even bigger stage. The beauty of it is we have a constituency and an audience that loves it so we kind of hear from them, but it's an organization that you work with in the UFC that we're talking all the time. We're trying to figure that out, never resting on our laurels.
SI.com: There's been so much talk about the UFC going off to find a network deal, or why things didn't work with HBO. Why do you think that hasn't worked while things have worked so well with Spike?
Diamond: Why it hasn't worked on their end is a question for them. Why it has worked on our end, we're very collaborative. There's been issues I think in the past where networks have walked in and said we want to bring our own production team in here, we want to bring in our own announcing crew. We love working with ConCom Productions. We love working with Bruce Connal and all those guys. When we're on site, we're like one unit. Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg, I don't think you can get two better guys to do that. They are very different people but when they come together for a broadcast they're like brothers. Mike does the heavy lifting and he knows the sport and he's great, and Joe is that everyman. He's like the audience watching at home, he just happens to be sitting at the table. We're very comfortable with that because it fits the scope of our network. I can't speak for other networks, but for whatever reason -- maybe they have 25 Emmys sitting on the shelf and think they can do this better -- that's down to them and what they want to do. I think for Dana (White) it's like, "I know how I want this thing done and I know the guys that can make that happen." He's going to stand by them and stand by that premise. But anything can change.
SI.com: The cards scheduled for Versus in 2010, what is your take on that?
Diamond: It's always been common knowledge for us and for them that they had the ability to do this. For us, it only makes the sport bigger by being out in a different universe. It was kind of interesting because our universe is a little bit bigger, but you know what, the more people seeing the sport the better.
SI.com: That Versus card is very well put together. By it being on Versus, Spike doesn't have access to Jon Jones versus Brandon Vera. That doesn't concern you in any way?
Diamond: No. No. We've got plenty of fights to show on the air between what we're doing, what we've done. It's all good.
SI.com: People have said that Spike is essentially the UFC network. Is there any concern for you about oversaturation of UFC on Spike, and along those lines, people have speculated about oversaturation of MMA in general on television. Is there any validity to those concerns?
Diamond: Well, to answer the second question first, and Dana says this too, I think the sport has grown leaps and bounds, and it's not mainstream yet. To me, the UFC is always going to be the gold standard, so unless the audience comes to us and says "stop, too much," and no one has done that yet, it's going to be a big part of what we do. Having said that I've always said we're not a sports network, we're a network that has sports. UFC is a very important part of that. There are other sports that will be breaking out over time on Spike. We just saw a panel today with TNA. They're sports entertainment, but they're a big part of what we do. The Facing Ali documentary, that's a big part of what we're starting to do. That stuff is important. We don't have a lot of sports that we put on our air, but to us what we put on is our filet mignon. We have other stuff. We launched Blue Mountain State this week that everyone is going crazy over. We're always cognizant of a balance and not going overboard with it, but I don't think we've reached the saturation point yet.
SI.com: It's an interesting discussion heading into the new year. People are always looking for trends on what's going to happen or what's not going to happen. That seems to be one that people have talked about a lot.
Diamond: You can make the analogy with music. No one ever gets upset when a band puts out a new box set. If you're a fan, you'll buy it. If the quality of the product is great, and you're not skimping on that, which they don't do by any stretch of the imagination, I think loyalists and people showing interest in the sport are there. I don't hear people complaining there's too much baseball on television.
SI.com: Is the audience still the same?
Diamond: It's still young men, but you know what's really interesting is it's hard to believe we've been doing this for five years. The guys that were 18-34 are now 23-39, so they're growing and there's a new audience coming in behind them. I think that's adding to the volume. And you've got new people coming in because they see Kimbo, Chuck or Tito. And then you've got The Ultimate Fighter with guys like Kenny Florian who were starting out on TUF 1 and he's a veteran fighter in the UFC now. There's all these different streams of consciousness and things happening at the same time that are just lifting the sport up, and up and up. As a sports fan I was introduced to mixed martial arts doing this, and I just think it's a tremendous sport. The other level of success you see is in local communities with gyms and training centers and camps opening up. I live in New Jersey and you've got the Millers up north and (Kurt) Pellegrino and (Frankie) Edgar down south. It's just going from strength to strength.
SI.com: How much more can the sport grow before it starts leveling off?
Diamond: I think the sky's the limit. For us, every time we think it'll plateau, it goes up for another reason. Whether they're signing another fighter, whether there's another programming concept, whether their expansion internationally will have an affect on us. Again, it's like the ideas come from within this think tank of all of us. ... The irony is, with everyone asking if it'll peak or go away, mixed martial arts has been around for 2,000 years. You know, as a sport, it's not going away. Will it have its peaks and valleys? Sure. The NBA had some dark times. Major League Baseball had its dark times. It ebbs and flows but I don't think it's going anywhere.
SI.com: My feeling has been for a long time that a lot of this will be determined by the networks and TV exposure. You guys were the first ones to jump on MMA. Other networks have made it a cornerstone of their content. MMA is everywhere, yet you can't find boxing on television. Why?
Diamond: The problem with boxing is twofold: It's the business of boxing, and the stars are starting to fade. The Mayweathers. The De La Hoyas. There's not enough big stars out there that are transcending everything. You look at the Chuck Liddell, you look at Tito Ortiz, you look at Kimbo Slice, even the Randy Coutures of the world, they're transcending just being fighters. They're becoming names in other arenas and that's what pop-culture is all about. A rock star. An athlete. An actor. You have to transcend a variety of audiences. We were having this conversation with the TNA folks about The Rock. There's a whole generation of people that know him as an actor. "Oh, he was a wrestler?" So, that's the key.
SI.com: Are pro-wrestling and MMA audiences similar?
Diamond: I think there's some crossover but wrestling is more of a soap opera. I always say they're stuntmen who act. And I scold people when they say wrestling is fake. Wrestling is not fake, there's a predetermined outcome. Those guys get the crap beat out of them. ... There's some crossover. Back in the day, the WWE was the lead-in to The Ultimate Fighter, which had its own sea legs after that. We looked at it as a way of crossing audiences.
SI.com: How much longer do you see The Ultimate Fighter being a viable product?
Diamond: I think it can go as long as we can all come up with new concepts and ways to keep it fresh each time. That's the challenge for us. In 10 seasons, and now 11 because I kind of know what's going on for the next season, as long as that exists it can keep going. We always have new fighters coming up. Fortunately we have the luxury right now of five weight classes, so we can mix that up. It's a feeder system that just keeps feeding itself. I don't think there's a lack of interest in it. i think guys watching love to get into the idea of character, and for them it's a vehicle because they've seen the gestation period go from start to finish. Hey, I watched the show. I got to know Kenny Florian. Now I really like him and feel invested in him watching pay-per-views over the next couple years. We could be the Saturday Night Live of pro sports.
SI.com: Do you find yourself watching mixed martial arts outside of UFC?
Diamond: Yeah, it's hard enough keeping up with just UFC. And over the last weekend my wife was really happy with me because I had to watch the prelims and had to watch the pay-per-view on Saturday night. I've been away a lot. But I try to watch other stuff. Even before the Strikeforces an Afflictions came on, I tried to keep an eye on King of the Cage. I'd go online to watch clips. I think you have to. In some ways, MMA is like college football. There's just so much of it out there, it's hard to keep track. But between Web sites and publications and word of mouth and chewing Joe Silva's ear off, you get an idea of what's going on out there.