TUF Nations Finale: Television and Providing a Payoff

Matthew RyderFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2014

Apr 27, 2013; Newark, NJ, USA; Michael Bisping (red gloves) competes against Alan Belcher (not pictured) during UFC 159 at the Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Television is funny business. Not always "ha-ha" funny, either.

One can invest hours into a season of television, hoping that a payoff will come even if those hours are painstaking, boring or downright bad. You want to see a character rise above his demons or get revenge, or another character get his comeuppance, and you're willing to sit for hours in hopes that it happens.

Sometimes it does.

Other times it doesn't.

But viewers keep coming back regardless, hanging on and waiting for it in one way or another.

That's the concept that's more or less driven the existence of The Ultimate Fighter, a program many claim to have stopped watching years ago, but that numbers suggest it may still have something of an audience.

The UFC is banking on that audience and their hunt for a reality MMA payoff, spinning off the program into all sorts of international variations in an effort to replicate the recipe for success that established its relevance a decade ago: A dash of violence, a pinch of in-house drama, a spoonful of hokey reality TV production and voila—instant credibility as a sport.

The very idea that this was the path to legitimizing MMA in North America is perhaps a sad commentary, but that's an issue for another day.

What's for today is the fact that the promotion has the season finale of its most recent international TUF happening on Wednesday night, and while viewership for the season has been among the worst of any of the program's iterations, the finale is among the strongest those iterations have seen.

It's almost directly inverse to the way TUF has existed in other markets, where the seasons do outlandish numbers episodically and then the campaign is capped by a collection of unknowns duking it out beneath a totally uninspiring headliner.

Not TUF: Nations though.

TUF: Nations is getting a solid headliner between Michael Bisping and Tim Kennedy. It's getting a competitive, if perhaps irrelevant, bout between Canadian coach Patrick Cote and Aussie coach Kyle Noke. It's got names like Sam Stout, Dustin Poirier, Sarah Kaufman and Mark Bocek.

In terms of payoff for the average MMA viewer, this is good for any free television card in the modern era of the UFC; for a regional Ultimate Fighter it borders on historic.

It's hard to know what it all says about the importance of TUF, be it to the UFC or to its regional growth. It's also hard to know what it says about the promotion's commitment to providing payoff in the form of bigger names on free television, particularly on the brand of card that most would suggest has recently been the weakest.

Is the new goal to work backwards with TUF, improving finales in an effort to get fans to invest in the season knowing they'll be rewarded with a good card at the end? Or is this just a matter of some names being available at a coincidental time, creating a good card by happenstance?

One way or another, the payoff is in place this time, whether it's replicated in the future or not. It's easy to get behind the UFC for that, for creating some prestige in the brand that essentially kickstarted their very existence as we know it.

That's good for the sport, but more importantly it's good for a viewer craving a payoff they've so habitually come to expect from television.