The entire landscape of mixed martial arts changed today. Maybe.
The announcement that CBS will broadcast live Elite XC shows on Saturday nights in prime time is potentially the biggest deal in the history of the sport in North America.
But no matter what is said about a multi-year commitment and four shows per year, when it comes to television, like everything, it will live and die by the ratings.
"The sport of MMA airing on CBS is the single biggest thing to happen to the sport," said Elite XC promoter Gary Shaw. That sounds like a promoter over hyping his latest announcement, but if the show is successful, that's exactly what it will be.
But it's going to take a huge promotional effort by the network and the company to build the event and make it fly.
Even the most-watched Ultimate Fighting Championship event in history, the Sept. 8 show headlined by Quinton Jackson vs. Dan Henderson in a UFC-Pride light heavyweight championship unification match, drew 4.7 million viewers. While those are great numbers for cable television, they don't come close to what would be a desirable audience number for CBS, even on a Saturday night.
Within the male 18-34 age group, the big show UFC numbers would be successful on a network level, but MMA at this point has proven to have a narrow reach. It doesn't do well with older people. It doesn't do badly with women within the 18-34 group, but for network prime time success, you need to draw strongly in more than one age group.
Boxing's much-lauded "Contender" series failed on the network level. World Wrestling Entertainment programming, far more popular on cable television than MMA, was successful on NBC in the '80s, but drew poor numbers the past two years in a similar prime time slot with the revival of "Saturday Night's Main Event."
The first Elite XC show, which is tentatively scheduled for April 26th and likely headlined by Kimbo Slice, will either be the most watched MMA event ever in the United States, or it will be a failure. One could make a strong argument that above and beyond UFC's first live television special in 2005, where Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar became instant stars by having almost the perfect match at the perfect moment for the sport, this is the most important night, going forward, in the sport's U.S. history.
If the shows get poor ratings, the entire sport will be stigmatized with the idea that it has its cult popularity and is simply cable TV fare. It will be a huge blow for a sport which, with its phenomenal growth over the past few years, has been written up as the next NASCAR. Conversely, successful numbers, particularly if they maintain, will entrench MMA as a major sport in this country.
"Mixed martial arts is one of the fastest growing sports in the country and a wildly popular entertainment vehicle for upscale, young adult audiences," said Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president of CBS Primetime. "It's original programming for Saturday night; it's live, creating an event-atmosphere; and it's something that hasn't been seen on network television, until now.”
It's not a surprise that CBS made a deal for MMA. Both CBS and NBC negotiated for MMA programming for months. CBS' interest in UFC predated the writers’ strike, while NBC's interest picked up with the idea of looking for new live programming during the strike. That CBS went with Elite XC over the established UFC is a surprise, and is believed to have happened because Dana White wouldn't compromise on giving the network control of the broadcast.
White noted earlier this week, before the deal was announced, that he wasn't going to sign a bad deal for the company, even with a network station. The control issue also likely cost UFC a deal with HBO last year. UFC’s strategy of playing hardball and trying to get the deal on its terms simply wasn't going to work with a network, but the gamble was that a big player wouldn't take the chance with an organization that has nowhere near the name recognition and level of mainstream stars.
Because Showtime, part owner of Elite XC, is part of the Viacom family, which owns CBS, they fell into a deal that as a fledgling group, gives them a level of exposure they couldn't afford to turn down.
"I don't know why they didn't get it," said Gary Shaw, promoter of Elite XC. "If I had to guess, I'd say that it was Dana White. I don't know that. I don't worry about the UFC. If the prom queen wants to go out with me, I don't ask why she isn't dating the quarterback. I just show up at 8 p.m. at her door. I've said all along I think the UFC is great.
“I like the Fertittas and Marc Ratner (UFC vice president of regulatory affairs) is like a brother to me. But the problem is no fighter can be bigger than Dana White or the UFC. For us, the fighters will always be the biggest stars."
Shaw's most successful MMA event was the Feb. 16 show in Miami, which drew a 1.9 rating on Showtime. It was the highest rating for a non-UFC MMA event, largely due to the unique Kimbo Slice vs. Tank Abbott main event. But that's only 522,000 viewers, and Elite XC will need ten times that audience number, if not more, to do competitive numbers on CBS.
The show also sold out the 6,187-seat BankUnited Center in Miami, which benefited from Slice being a hometown star. For CBS events, Shaw said they are looking at running 15,000-seat arenas with the new Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., being among the venues under consideration for the debut show.
Most of the details of the deal have not been made official. CBS will be paying Elite XC a fee per show. They haven't agreed to a time slot, although with affiliate news commitments, it would have to be either 8-10 p.m. or 9-11 p.m. The broadcast team hasn't been agreed to, but both sides will have input into the decision. Shaw said that once the date and the venue are finalized, they would begin finalizing the matches.
Shaw said he expected the shows to be similar to the Elite XC events on Showtime.
"It's the same type of show," he said. "I think we do a very good production with competitive fights."
Another key is that, with so many people watching the first show and presumably so much hype, if someone makes a good showing, they can become an instant star, similar, to what happened to Griffin stemming from the first "Ultimate Fighter" finals. The impact of a great match will be multiplied tenfold.
An unknown fighter who does a sensational finish will almost instantly become one of the best known fighters in the country. A genuine match of the year could end up being the most talked about fight in history. Similarly, the affects of a poor show will be magnified like never before.
But it also adds to an over-saturation problem. UFC is producing roughly two shows per month. Elite is now adding four CBS dates to the 16 or so Showtime dates they had planned for this year. That's a lot of events in a sport with a finite number of stars, and in which the stars can only fight a few times per year.
Even with the deal giving his company the largest television exposure in a business where television exposure is the life blood, Shaw doesn't feel Elite XC is on the verge of leapfrogging UFC as the top promotion.
"No, I'm a realist," he said. "UFC is No. 1. I am Pepsi to their Coke, Avis to their Hertz."