If you spend enough time around mixed martial arts, you’ll find that those that consider themselves fans of the sport are an obsessive bunch. They love to discuss even the most arcane details, and for the past year or so, one of the favorite topics of discussion has been the ratings the UFC has found since the promotion signed a long-term deal with FOX to appear on the FOX, FUEL and FX family of channels.
In August of last year, the UFC and FOX signed a deal that would see the MMA promotion in bed with the network for seven years. The deal, according to the NY Times, is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.
The UFC made their debut with FOX on November 12, 2011 with a one-fight teaser. That fight saw Junior dos Santos dethrone heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez via 64-second knockout. The quick knockout was seen by 5.7 million viewers.
Since then, the ratings on the subsequent FOX cards have seen declining numbers, with the low coming for UFC on FOX 3 and UFC on FOX 4, which pulled in 2.4 million viewers each.
People that care about such things pointed to the declining numbers and went into full “the sky is falling mode,” a ridiculous leap considering the deal with the UFC and FOX is still in its infancy.
One person that has not panicked is UFC president Dana White, and if one is to believe the words he offered to the media following UFC 154, neither have the folks at FOX:
“You guys are always so focused on the ratings and all this s**t, we’re in a long-term deal with FOX, we’re not going anywhere and we might even be in a longer term deal with FOX.”
Asked to elaborate on that comment, a smiling White simply replied “see what happens.”
Some will say with low ratings, why would FOX want to extend the relationship so early in the process? The words of David Hill, chairman of FOX Sports Media Group at the time of the initial announcement, can give some indication as to why an extension may be in the offing. Talking about the very important demographic of males aged 18-34, Hill said, “They grow with the sport, and when they have kids, they’ll watch it with their kids.”
Put simply, it appears that FOX feels they signed the UFC at the perfect time for optimum growth, and they have no interest in letting that potential slip away in the near future.
The UFC has grown from a promotion that was bleeding money and on the edge of financial collapse to a promotion that could be worth upward of $2.5 billion. Those are attention-getting numbers, and if FOX is right, they are only going to increase.
These days, everyone, at least everyone in the US, sees the NFL as the ultimate sports success story, the league that all other leagues should be measured against, but if you look at history, the NHL started out small and grew into what it is today.
Super Bowl 1 wasn’t a sellout, and it drew 24.4 million television viewers. Between 1978 and 1992, the game drew between 68 million and 92 million viewers, and last year, it topped off at 111 million. I know it’s unfair to compare the two as far as casual fan interest is concerned, and I don’t think the UFC will ever see numbers of that magnitude, but the fact is that hardly any business bursts onto the scene as a world beater and stays there, it takes time and patience, something FOX seems to be willing to invest in with the UFC.
Another way to look at it would be to compare the UFC to Apple, another business that started out small and was on the verge of bankruptcy before it came back to be what it is today, a company worth $624 billion.
All the folks walking around and claiming the UFC’s deal with FOX an unmitigated failure are missing the point: There’s value in the franchise beside simple short-term television ratings, something that the people that are making these deals seem to have discovered.
**Post-UFC 154 quotes from Dana White obtained first hand by BR MMA