UFC vs. Bellator: Sorting out Who's Really Winning the Television Ratings Battle

James MacDonald@@JimMacDonaldMMAFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2014

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - MARCH 26: Dana White, President and CEO of the UFC, addresses the audience during a press conference in San Juan Puerto Rico to promote the sport on the island on March 26, 2014 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Angel Valentin/Getty Images)
Angel Valentin/Getty Images

From the moment Viacom purchased Bellator MMA, comparisons to the late 1990s promotional war between WWE and WCW have rarely been in short supply. At the risk of drawing the ire of B/R MMA’s readership by mentioning pro wrestling, the parallels between UFC/Bellator and WWE/WCW are obvious.

A billion dollar company buys a majority stake in a small promotion with the aim of eventually challenging the industry leader. Said promotion gradually builds a fanbase by showcasing a mixture of homegrown talent and ageing stars.

That being said, the similarities have always seemed superficial. After all, MMA is a distinctly less pliable business than pro wrestling. Bringing in recognizable names is one thing, but controlling their in-cage destinies is another.

However, Bellator’s success in the ratings since moving to Spike TV in 2013 raises the question of whether the comparisons are more substantive than first thought. Indeed, the California-based promotion has bested the UFC’s Fox Sports ratings on more than one occasion.

This indisputable fact must mean that a genuine, highly competitive rivalry between the promotions is underway, right? Let’s take a closer look.

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Intuitively, one would think that comparing television ratings is a simple exercise. Which number is bigger: x or y? There’s a little more to it than you might think, though. To contradict a popular expression, the numbers do occasionally lie.

Since moving to the fledgling Fox Sports channels in mid-2013, the UFC has struggled to match the ratings it achieved on Spike and FX.

From 2009-2011, UFC Fight Nights on Spike would regularly attract almost 2 million viewers for events that were often short on star power. In contrast, the organization’s best effort since moving to Fox Sports 1 is 1.7 million viewers, which was achieved with a star-studded event headlined by Chael Sonnen and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua on the channel’s launch.

Since then, ratings have fluctuated dramatically, even dropping as low as 122,000 for UFC Fight Night 30 on Fox Sports 2. Meanwhile, Bellator hasn’t dropped below 400,000 viewers since debuting on Spike.

Has Bellator really gained so much ground on the UFC within the past year? One can never really say for certain, but there are more plausible explanations for this illusion of promotional parity.

As I pointed out late last year, it takes time for a new channel to establish itself in the general consciousness. 

Television Ratings for the Four Most Recent Bellator and UFC Events
Bellator 114711,000UFN 38936,000
Bellator 113507,000UFN 361,400,000
Bellator 112748,000UFN 35629,000
Bellator 111653,000UFN 33755,000
Courtesy of The MMA Report

Spike is an established television network with a built-in MMA audience as a result of its previous partnership with the UFC. Fox Sports, on the other hand, is still building its audience. The media-led notion that the channel would compete with ESPN was, and continues to be, a complete fantasy.

At its worst, ESPN’s SportsCenter quadruples the audience of the similarly themed Fox Sports Live. Is that because the latter is an inferior show or because SportsCenter is an established part of the average sports fan’s diet?

When Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney claims to be winning the ratings war with the UFC, he is savvy enough to know better. It is exactly the kind of posturing one would expect from a fight promoter—“Rampage” Jackson might actually believe it when he says it, however.

What is surprising is that some of the media have been taken in by the idea that recent television ratings paint an accurate picture of Bellator’s standing in relation to the UFC.

Numbers are important, but they are occasionally trumped by common sense. When Bellator 105 attracted four times as many viewers as UFC Fight Night 30 on the same weekend last year, what conclusion should we have drawn?

Either Bellator has discovered a way to overcome the UFC’s prohibitive brand recognition and its superior product almost overnight or it can be explained with reference to the vagaries of television ratings.

The growth of Bellator is extremely important for the future of mixed martial arts. Currently, the sport’s success is defined by the UFC’s success. Given the uncertain nature of the market, that isn’t a comfortable place for the sport to be.

Unfortunately, that is the situation no matter what the television ratings might suggest. Both a quantitative and qualitative gulf exists between the UFC and Bellator, and obfuscating that fact isn’t going to alter the reality.

James MacDonald is a freelance writer and featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow James on Twitter.

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