The UFC's television deal with Fox may ultimately turn out to be the vehicle which lifts mixed martial arts to mainstream acceptance, the same way the NFL and the NBA are regarded. The early television ratings, though, show a troubling trend, declining precipitously in each of the UFC's three appearances on Fox.
The first UFC on Fox show, featuring a heavyweight championship bout between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos on Nov. 12, 2011, did 5.675 million viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings.
The second, with a light heavyweight contender's match between Rashad Evans and Phil Davis as the main event, did 4.661 million on Jan. 28.
And on May 5, UFC on Fox 3 did 2.418 million total viewers and finished last in its time slot. It did win its primary demographic – people 18-49 – but in terms of overall audience, it finished below Shark Tank and CSI.
The UFC fight was essentially trounced by the pay-per-view boxing card that same night headlined by Floyd Mayweather against Miguel Cotto. Sales figures are not available yet but are expected to be around 1.5 million buys.
UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta isn't panicking and said it's important to recognize that the Fox deal is a long-term proposition for the company.
"Would we like to see the numbers be trending differently? Yes, of course," Fertitta said. "But we're not concerned and we don't think it's an overall reflection of our business. There are reasons for it. If you think about it, for the first [Fox] fight we had a massive amount of promotion within the NFL on Fox. And we led with our big show, the heavyweight championship, so of course, we were going to draw a much broader range of viewers.
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"The fight in January in Chicago actually performed pretty well, even though it was a little below the first one. It was still super solid. This last show, I'd say it was a moderate performance. Really, what we're looking at is, 'How did we rank within the competition compared to what was going on that night?' And in hindsight, going on Cinco de Mayo may not have been the best thing to do."
Fertitta pointed out the UFC was competing not only with the Mayweather-Miguel Cotto pay-per-view fight that night, but also with Cinco de Mayo celebrations, the opening of "The Avengers" movie and NBA playoff games.
Despite the competition, the UFC ranked first in the 18-49 demographic in its time slot. (The Mayweather fight didn't count, because pay-per-view shows aren't tracked by Nielsen.) The UFC had 1.471 million 18-49 viewers Saturday. Even that, though, was significantly less than in the first two Fox cards. On Nov. 12, the UFC drew 3.776 million 18-49-year-olds and on Jan. 28 it was 3.072.
By way of comparison, the rebroadcast of the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez fight on Nov. 19 did 1.09 million overall viewers and 711,000 viewers on HBO among 18-49-year-olds. That was for a fight that had happened seven days earlier, when people already knew the result and which came on a network that has roughly 30 million homes compared to more than 110 million homes on Fox.
The live viewing of the April 28 boxing match between Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson on HBO attracted 1.57 million total viewers and 919,000 in the 18-49 demographic, despite being in 80 million fewer homes than UFC on Fox 3.
Fertitta said he was pleased with the viewership of UFC on Fox 3 and believes it helped further the company's goal of building stars.
"If The Avengers did [a box office of] over $200 million for the weekend, unfortunately for us, there were a great number of our potential viewers sitting in a movie theater somewhere," he said. "Or, they were out that night celebrating Cinco de Mayo. Listen, I'm not trying to make excuses. Hats off to HBO and Bernard Hopkins. That's a great job and a great number they pulled. But when you say, 'Are we concerned,' I'd say no. We're excited.
"We had a situation where 2.5 million people, which I would say is still a substantial number, got to see what I would say was a tremendous product. All four fights were great fights and in the main event, Nate Diaz showed he's potentially a breakout star who down the road could move the needle for us on pay-per-view. The playbook is playing out for us exactly the way we wanted it to."
There is a lot of validity in Fertitta's explanation, but the decline is troubling on another level. The knowledge of MMA among the general public is much greater than it was in 2008 thanks largely to the UFC's efforts to promote and educate fans about the sport.
Yet, an Elite XC show on CBS on July 26, 2008, which featured a main event of Robbie Lawler against Scott Smith, did 2.62 million viewers. Neither Lawler nor Smith was ever considered stars or top-level attractions, but that card, held nearly four years earlier when the sport wasn't as widely accepted, did more viewers than UFC on Fox 3.
That's an issue that has to trouble Fertitta.
UFC president Dana White banked on viewers who bought the Mayweather pay-per-view card on Saturday also tuning in to watch the fights on Fox, which aired first. But many people who buy pay-per-view aren't aware they can change the channel and come back, so they didn't switch to the UFC even if they'd been inclined to do so for fear of losing the $70 they paid to see Mayweather.
"Before I was involved in the pay-per-view business and understood the ins and outs, I was always scared to death to change the channel," Fertitta said. "We will work on this and look at it, but we're not unhappy. We got a tremendous amount of exposure for a kid like Nate Diaz. We're going to build him the way we built Jon Jones. Two years ago, nobody knew who Jon Jones was, and now, a couple of weeks ago, we did a very good [PPV] number for his fight that I think really crossed over and where the non hard-core fans were talking about it.
"It's a learning process for all of us, but we're not at all concerned. We feel things are progressing according to plan and whatever issues we have are things that aren't insurmountable and which we can fix."
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