(This story appears in today’s edition of USA TODAY.)
When the UFC signed a seven-year broadcast rights deal with FOX Sports in 2011, it was hailed as the beginning of a new era for both the UFC and MMA.
Such a revolution has been slow to materialize in the ratings, but two and a half years into a deal that was reported to garner the UFC at least $100 million a year, the state of the UFC-FOX union “has never been stronger,” according to FOX Sports Executive Vice President of Programming Bill Wanger.
“It’s one of the strongest partnerships we’ve had with a sports league,” Wanger tells USA TODAY Sports and MMAjunkie. “We’re really happy with the product, and it’s a product that young men flock to.”
That enthusiasm might come as a surprise to some fight fans who have noticed ratings leveling off for UFC broadcasts on both FOX and FOX Sports 1.
But while the raw numbers might not be as gaudy as originally predicted – UFC events on FOX average around 3.5 million viewers, while UFC Fight Night events on FOX Sports 1 only occasionally edge past the 1 million viewer mark, a far cry from the nearly 9 million who tuned in for the UFC’s first fight on FOX in November 2011 – Wanger insists it’s not just how many people are watching that matters to FOX, but who those people are.
“It’s a great male demographic, and it’s a very loyal audience,” Wanger says. “They will find the programming.”
That’s a benefit that shouldn’t be underestimated, according to USA TODAY television reporter Gary Levin. It’s especially important when trying to launch a new cable network, as FOX did when it rebranded the SPEED channel as FOX Sports 1 in August.
“I think they’re just looking to make it a destination, and putting stuff on there that already has a dedicated following is a good way to do that,” Levin says. “The ratings might never be what they would be on a larger network, but when they converted to FOX Sports 1, you have to promise the cable operators a certain level of programming. If you can promise something like the UFC, then they’ll be on board with it.”
The existing fanbase for MMA might not be enormous, Wanger acknowledged, but it is fiercely passionate, which makes it ideal as an “anchor tenant” for a new cable network like FOX Sports 1.
“Since FOX Sports 1 has launched, because of the time of the year and when various seasons start, the UFC and NASCAR have really been the key live event programming,” Wanger says. “UFC was there with us since the beginning. Those fans have found FOX Sports 1 and have driven a lot of buzz to the channel.”
That much seems borne out by the numbers. While FOX Sports 1 typically averages just under 300,000 viewers in prime time, according to data provided by Nielsen Media Research, broadcasts of the preliminary portion of UFC pay-per-view cards on FOX Sports 1 regularly edge that number close to 1 million.
That’s “substantial growth,” Wanger says, and it’s one reason why he insists he’s not worried that the UFC’s expanded events schedule is over-saturating the market.
“I don’t think there’s over-saturation by any means,” Wanger says. “We actually applaud the additional hours. We’re trying to get this sport to be at the same level as baseball and football and NASCAR and so on. You need those extra hours to attract the eyeballs.”
With the UFC’s busy fight week schedule leading up to UFC 175 in Las Vegas on Saturday night, hours of content is one thing it can surely provide. Whether FOX Sports 1 can deliver the eyeballs, that remains to be seen.
For more on the UFC’s upcoming schedule, including UFC 175 and The Ultimate Fighter 19 Finale, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.
(Pictured: TUF 19 Finale headliner Frankie Edgar)