What The Marriage Of The UFC And Fox Means For The UFC
The landscape of sports on television is ever changing. Within the past few months, we’ve seen the approval of the merger between Comcast and NBCUniversal lead to NBC’s decision to rebrand Comcast property Versus as NBC Sports Network, with their long-term plan being to position the newly renamed network as a competitor to television sports behemoth ESPN. To that end, NBCUniversal announced a new deal with Major League Soccer (MLS) earlier this month that will bring the fledgling soccer league to the NBC stable of networks beginning in 2012, taking over broadcasts that are currently handled by Fox Soccer Channel. NBC and NBC Sports Network will televise two regular season matches, two playoff matches, and two national team matches on NBC and 38 regular season matches, three playoff games, and two national team matches on NBC Sports Network, a move that will raise the league’s profile exponentially and thus lend more legitimacy to soccer in the United States.
However, the visibility and popularity boost that MLS will receive via the NBC deal will likely pale in comparison to the deal that another sports organization struck with a major network this week. On Thursday, it was announced that the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) had come to an agreement with Fox Sports on a seven-year deal that would see UFC content spread amongst the Fox Network (the first time that the UFC has been shown on network television) and cable properties FX and Fuel . It’s hard to understate what this deal means to the UFC.
Really, it means everything.
The UFC, for years, has struggled with the wrongheaded and outdated belief that it’s nothing more than glorified cockfighting, a view that largely draws from the organization’s early days in the 1990s of running toughman contests that would pit, for example, a barroom boxer against a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner to see which fighting discipline was superior. Essentially, anything and everything was allowed in those fights and that fact has largely shaped how the organization is seen by some even to this day. It’s an outdated viewpoint that is no longer valid largely due to three elements that have shaped the UFC as we know it today.
One was the purchase of the UFC in January 2001 by Zuffa, LLC, a company run by brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and Dana White, who with his brash manner and role as president of the UFC is well-known as the public face of the company. Under the Zuffa banner, the Fertittas and White sought to legitimize the sport by gaining the sanctioning of state athletic commissions in a manner similar to how boxing operates. Once they gained approval in the state of Nevada, a large majority of other states followed to the point where the UFC is now regulated in most of the country .
The second was the finale of the UFC’s now wildly popular reality series, The Ultimate Fighter. The Ultimate Fighter, or TUF for short, premiered in early 2005 to relatively little fanfare on Spike TV and allowed up and coming fighters a chance to compete for a place in the organization as well as the six-figure contract that came with it. The fighters were placed in a single-elimination tournament that spanned 12 weeks and culminated in a finale in Las Vegas that saw 2.6 million viewers to tune into the final match between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, a fight that is recognized by many as one of the best in UFC history and is credited by White as saving the UFC. This fight was the flashpoint that ignited the UFC’s popularity and sent mixed martial arts (MMA) and the UFC itself into the stratosphere.
The final element was the evolution of the sport of MMA, which is often used interchangeably with UFC due to the organization’s prominence in the sport. Whereas in previous years fights would match, for instance, a wrestler against a kickboxer, fighters today are schooled in multiple fighting disciplines that are molded together to create a truly entertaining and unique sport. To make a comparison, think of MMA as an MP3 to boxing’s eight-track tape. Boxing was an essential part of the 20th century. Fighters like Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson, and Rocky Marciano were historical figures who helped to define a century. What boxing was to the 20th century, MMA will be to the 21st. In order to do that, however, the UFC needed a network presence, which is why the deal with Fox was so essential.
Network television is the white whale that Zuffa has been chasing ever since the first TUF finale in 2005 and landing this agreement with Fox will likely be looked at as a seismic event similar in importance to the Griffin/Bonnar fight in future years. While their six year relationship with Spike TV was beneficial for both the organization and Spike TV, moving to a network was clearly the next step in the organization’s evolution. Terms of the deal include four live events per year to be shown on Fox Network on Friday nights, another six live events on FX, a revamped Ultimate Fighter on FX on Friday nights beginning in 2012 that will include a live fight each week , and other various UFC library and highlight shows to be spread across other Fox properties. Ultimately, this means that Fox’s broadcast umbrella will allow for 36 weeks of live fights per year which is gigantic for the sport’s profile and place in the sporting landscape. Another coup of the deal was retaining their own production for the events on Fox, a rarity as most networks prefer to use their own production styles but, for anyone who’s ever watched a UFC event, their production is top-notch and is a defining characteristic of the organization. The importance of keeping that consistency and control had to have been a major goal in any deal so Fox allowing the UFC to keep it speaks to their belief in not only the sport, but in the UFC as a whole.
Rightly or wrongly, a presence on network television helps to define a sport’s legitimacy. Just ask MLS what they expect their relationship with NBC to do for their league. The importance of being able to draw eyeballs to your sport via a network television relationship is immeasurable. The success of TUF helped to increase the UFC’s profile immensely and they have been experiencing a higher level of coverage on ESPN over the past year or so, but landing on network television via this deal with Fox is a gigantic step in the UFC’s growth and will ultimately prove to be yet another boon to one of the most exciting and rapidly growing sports in the world.
 Cut to me furiously checking my cable listings to determine whether or not I have Fuel.
 With one notable exception being the state of New York where the UFC continues to campaign for approval to compete.
 Whereas the current version of the show is taped months in advance of airing and includes a taped fight at the end of each episode, The Ultimate Fighter on FX will be shot essentially live, with each week’s episode containing footage that was taped the previous week and will culminate with a live fight at the end of each episode on Friday nights. This is a very interesting wrinkle that’s being added as the show will enter its 15th cycle by the time it reaches FX next year.