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UFC Plays The Cable Card – Hits it Big

Posted on 02/15/2011

The UFC has always used pay-per-view as the center of its revenue streams. But not long after Zuffa has purchased the UFC, it became apparent that in order to accomplish the greater objective, it was going to be necessary to get some exposure on basic cable, a familiar destination for sports fans. Fox Sports Net is one of the popular networks that is devoted to sports, and so it seemed a natural television partner for the UFC’s efforts.

Fox Sports Net agreed to air some of the UFC’s fights – essentially on a tape-delayed basis – as part of its “Sunday Night Fights” series. The UFC had first appeared on basic cable on June 25, 2002 on FSN’s “The Best Damn Sports Show, Period.” When Fox announced that it would take the one-hour shows featuring some of the best the UFC had to offer and put them on Sunday nights, it commemorated a landmark event, because it helped the UFC to cross a line into more mainstream acceptance within the media industry itself.

Dan Harrison, the senior vice president of programming for Fox Sports Net, called it “Another opportunity to expose fight fans of all kinds to a sport that is growing and has been very popular in the pay-per-view industry.”

The program was called “UFC: As Real As It Gets,” and at that point in time, it was probably so named as to illustrate a positioning statement against professional wrestling, which was being compared to mixed martial arts in terms of the free-wheeling nature of the action and the target fan demographic. While wrestling was a choreographed event, with pre-determined winners, there was nothing “fake” about what the UFC had to offer, and the organization wanted to make that distinction very clear.

The UFC did not hold back when it came to putting some of its big stars on FSN. On one show alone in August of 2002, fights with Tito Ortiz, Pat Miletich and Frank Mir were featured. Mike Goldberg and Jeff Osborne served as the broadcast team, giving UFC a self-contained presentation.

What was very smart about this television package, from the UFC’s standpoint, was that it picked up on one marketing principle that had been used for years with success in the pro wrestling world – promoting one’s pay-per-view events through constant exposure and hype on “free” TV. And it worked – ratings went through the roof, and Dana White, president of the UFC, couldn’t have been happier. “It’s exhilarating to know our world television debut was so well-received,” he said.

The success with Fox Sports net eventually opened the door to an even more monumental success the UFC would have with the “Ultimate Fighter” series on Spike TV.

The Ultimate Fighter

While the UFC saw its pay-per-view numbers growing, there was still a vacuum to be filled, one that would provide the missing ingredient to catapult the UFC rapidly toward mainstream status.

Showing its cards on PPV meant that only the fans who paid for the events, either through In Demand or on a subsequently released DVD would be able to see them. But there was no “road show” where the UFC would take its live event to various locales around the country, as wrestling did, and there was not a significant presence on “free television,” which in modern parlance essentially means a broadcast or basic cable outlet.

The UFC remedied that situation by approaching Spike TV in 2004 with a time-buy, the organization was going to run a program that would include both competitive and reality elements. They called it “The Ultimate Fighter” and it made its debut on January 18, 2005. The show was an almost immediate hit, and it made sense. Spike TV was positioned as a network squarely aimed at an 18-34, predominantly male demographic and an association between itself and the UFC was a perfect fit.

The viewers were 70%-75% male. In the first season, the viewership got up to the two-million mark within twelve weeks.

That’s incredibly strong. And on October 10, 2006, during the Spike telecast, Tito Ortiz fought Ken Shamrock for the third time in an event televised live from the Hard Rock Casino & Resort in Florida. The numbers for that spectacle were staggering – that evening the UFC garnered a total of 4.2 million viewers, 1.6 million of which came in the coveted 18-34 demographic. In this category, it actually outdrew the American League Championship Series game between the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s by roughly 500,000 viewers.

To give you an idea of how the UFC has come full-circle, the U.S. Army was actually one of the advertisers on the program. You can’t get any more all-American than that, quite a change for a sport that was reviled just a few years earlier by elected representatives.

For Dana White, this was a great way for the audience to become acquainted with up-and-coming fighters as they climbed their way up the ladder. In that way, it became a lucrative “feeder system” in creating new stars.

The way it worked was this – fighters would get housed together, not unlike the reality TV program “Survivor.” They would live together, eat together, train together, but then they would ultimately compete against each other. They get divided up into two teams, each of which is coached by a prominent UFC fighter. They conduct matches which are, officially speaking, “exhibitions” (the show is headquartered in Las Vegas, so it is the Nevada State Athletic Commission that has jurisdiction over the proceedings).

The eventual winner of the competition is crowned “The Ultimate Fighter” (hence the name) and is rewarded with a multi-fight contract with the UFC. This is not to say that those fighters who do not win do not get to compete in the UFC; after all, having built their personalities, there is great relevance in using them in future promotions and programming. But they do not get the same deal as the winner.

The Ultimate Fighter quickly became a flagship program for Spike, and it was a win-win proposition, because it introduced the UFC to a new audience and brought its fighters closer to the fans than ever before.

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