When Demetrious Johnson takes on Tim Elliott for the flyweight title this Saturday, December 3, it will mark the conclusion of the 24th American season of The Ultimate Fighter. Including 10 international seasons spread out between Brazil, Latin America, Australia and China, that makes for a total of 34 iterations of the venerable reality show.
Over its 11 years of existence, the show has produced a torrent of talent, and the epic finale fight between Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin has entered UFC lore as the moment the promotion made it into the big time.
But after 34 seasons, hundreds of fights and a plethora of names and faces—most of them completely forgettable—what is The Ultimate Fighter, and what does it mean to a $4.2 billion promotion that's in the midst of a massive reorganization? With a drastically shrunken audience and a long gap since the rise of a new star from the show, its future is in doubt, and so is its role.
Over the years, some of the show's competitors have gone on to great things, including a total of 28 appearances in UFC title fights. Several have even won titles.
Michael Bisping, the middleweight champion, won the third season of the show. Former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans won the second season, and his predecessor, Forrest Griffin, won the original season. TJ Dillashaw, the runner-up on the 14th season, won the bantamweight title and defended it twice. Matt Serra, the beloved winner of the fourth season, shocked the world by upsetting Georges St-Pierre in the following fight.
Despite all that talent over the years, the show's ratings have steadily declined. The debut episode of TUF 24 drew just 370,000 viewers, down from 479,000 last spring for TUF 23 and 622,000 for the Conor McGregor-coached TUF 22. That spike for McGregor's season, however, was an outlier; the debut of TUF 21 pulled 490,000 viewers.
Even McGregor's number, however, is a fraction of what the show used to draw. For the 15th season, in 2012, producers aired the show live to shake things up in the first season on FX and pulled more than a million viewers per episode, per an analysis by Brent Brookhouse of Bloody Elbow that year.
That was widely considered a disaster at the time, since the last season to air on Spike, Season 14, had averaged more than 1.5 million viewers per episode.
That sounds like a good number, but even 1.5 million viewers represented a decline from the show's peak. Kimbo Slice's appearance on Season 10 was a ratings bonanza, and his fight with Roy Nelson set a record with more than 6.1 million viewers. The coaches' fight that season, featuring former light heavyweight champions Evans and Rampage Jackson, drew over a million pay-per-view buys as the UFC 114 main event.
Those salad days are long gone. A paltry 304,000 viewers watched November 23's episode of the show.
Per John Morgan of MMA Junkie, there will be at least one more season of TUF, set to air in April and focused around an all-star concept. That report comes with a caveat, though: As part of a broader effort to cut costs, according to investor documents analyzed by MMA Junkie's Ben Fowlkes and Steven Marrocco, the annual production budget for TUF will decrease from $27.6 million to just $10 million.
Whether that translates to Fox Sports 1 handling the production and therefore the costs, fewer seasons of the show per year or some combination of the two is up for debate.
There's no real debate that the format has become stale: a mixture of training sessions, banter, manufactured bad blood between the coaches, silly antics in a palatial Vegas estate and fights that range from awful to occasionally inspiring (as they've mostly been on the current season). Why would viewers keep tuning in for essentially the same product year after year?
In fairness, the UFC has tried to spice things up. As mentioned, they've tried a live season; they've introduced a brand-new weight class with the strawweights (TUF: A Champion Will be Crowned, Season 20); they've pitted rival fight camps against each other (Season 21); they've put the sport's biggest stars, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, on the show (18 and 22, respectively); and are now awarding the winner a title shot.
None of these attempts have succeeded in halting the long, steady ratings decline. Viewers are increasingly uninterested in the show; maybe they've seen it before, or maybe the entire concept of throwing competitors into a house together and then filming it is just a decade past its prime in the reality TV landscape.
It's worth stopping to ask precisely what TUF is trying to be at this point in its history, because that's the fundamental issue. Is it trying to draw the maximum number of viewers? Is it supposed to be the breeding ground for future champions? Is it supposed to introduce viewers to the fighters? Is it just a tool for finding and signing talent?
Despite the ratings drop, TUF is still a solid property for Fox Sports 1 in the context of their other non-live programming, which is only now starting to build an audience. The 304,000 viewers who watched the November 23 episode, for example, were still the network's largest audience of the day, even beating out a Champions League game.
As long as the UFC keeps making TUF, Fox Sports 1 will probably be happy with its returns. But what about the other aspects? Is it still growing talent?
TJ Dillashaw, who appeared on 2011's Season 14, is the last truly great fighter to come through an American version. Some have shown promise, such as winners Michael Chiesa (Season 15), Kelvin Gastelum (17), Julianna Pena (18) and Kamaru Usman (21), but none have broken through to the top.
The international seasons have produced a few contenders, including rising featherweight Yair Rodriguez (TUF: Latin America) and surging middleweight Robert Whittaker (TUF: The Smashes). For every legitimate success, though, there has been a string of disappointments. None of the four seasons of TUF: Brazil has produced an elite fighter, and TUF: China is best forgotten altogether.
Suffice to say, TUF isn't the major source of elite talent for the promotion at this point in its history. By my count, 29 of the UFC's 150 currently ranked fighters came up through the show. That's a significant proportion, but it's not an overwhelming one.
As a means of simply stocking the roster with fighters, TUF has more utility, as 121 of the 538 fighters on the roster—22.5 percent of the total—entered the UFC through the reality series. It's not a bad way for the UFC to establish itself in a new market and bring in some new fighters, as long as the promotion isn't holding its breath about getting future champions out of it.
What does the future hold for the reality show? Is it still worth it for the UFC to run season after season of TUF? It depends on what the promotion is trying to get out of it, but probably not. At this point, it's doubtful that any new gimmick or twist would bring back the millions of viewers who watched the show in its heyday.
The "group of oddballs living together in a house getting into some drama" concept is simply played out as a format for reality television. Compare the ratings of MTV's The Real World in 2010, much less 15 years ago, to its ratings now; it's not pretty. Unless the show is a cultural institution like The Bachelor, which itself represents a much different take on the core concept, that ship has long since sailed.
If the UFC wants to maintain a weekly programming format, though, there's room to work. It could continue to run tournaments of this type to introduce promising new fighters. There's not a single reason to think the house concept has added anything to the profiles of the legitimate talent the show has produced in the last five years.
That, at the end of the day, has been TUF's value: finding and bringing in new talent, some of whom have turned out to be good fighters. Most of them, however, are filler, and the UFC needs filler to stock more than 40 events per year.
As a vehicle for introducing those fighters to a broad audience, it hasn't succeeded in quite some time, and there's no bringing that level of mainstream penetration back as it's currently constructed.
From that first wild season that brought us Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez and a whole generation of stars who powered the UFC's first great expansion to Season 24 and Tim Elliott, TUF has been a cornerstone of the UFC. Its days of ratings dominance and cultural relevance, however, have been gone for a while.
All TV ratings drawn from the appropriate date on Sports TV Ratings, unless otherwise noted. Pay-per-view numbers come from MMA Payout, which compiles figures from Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. For the history enthusiasts out there, he also hosts The Fall of Rome Podcast on the end of the Roman Empire. He can be found on Twitter and on Facebook.