Viewpoint: MMA’s Reality TV Partnership Hanging TUF

By Tristen Critchfield Nov 27, 2011
Many link the first Stephan Bonnar-Forrest Griffin fight to the UFC’s rise. | Photo: Jeff Sherwood

Over the years, “The Ultimate Fighter” has wisely adopted a fluid format as well as flexibility, making minor tweaks in order to keep up with the never-ending demand for fresh concepts and solid ratings.

That has included making prospective contestants fight to get in the house (fight fans love fights, after all), appealing to national pride (Michael Bisping must cringe every time he sees a UFC 100 highlight) and giving a YouTube sensation a chance (stay tuned, Kimbo Slice could be back next week).

Often criticized by MMA’s hardcore demographic, the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” is largely responsible for the sport’s rapid growth in subsequent years. Consider this: without Stephan Bonnar-Forrest Griffin 1 and the curious collection of in-house hijinks that preceded it, would the UFC have been able to ink a deal with Fox networks six years later? Or Bellator with MTV2, for that matter?

As it moves further into its teen-age years, the long-running reality show is headed for its biggest transformation to date. Beginning in the spring of 2012, “The Ultimate Fighter” is going live. No more canned fights that happened months ago. No more paranoia regarding leaked results. No more questions of whether reality’s script influences matchmaking.

Not only is Wednesday’s conclusion to Season 14 the end of the program’s relationship with Spike TV, but it will also likely be the last time a current contestant can host a viewing party at his favorite local watering hole. In the coming years, they will be on site, watching -- or making -- the action unfold. It could revitalize the series, which has grown stagnant in recent years.

“This is revolutionary television right here,” UFC President Dana White said last summer.

Maybe, at least for MMA, but with such wholesale changes comes inherent risk. With a final tip of the cap to the show’s current incarnation, it is time to take a balanced look at some of the pros and cons of “The Ultimate Fighter’s” brave new world.

The Good

Live and Direct: As previously mentioned, live Octagon combat is the main selling point for the new format. Fans prefer to watch their stick-and-ball sports as they happen, so it is reasonable to assume the same rule applies to fight aficionados, as well. At their best, taped events supply nostalgia, not suspense. In the past, the UFC has worked diligently to keep results shrouded in mystery, but now such consternation becomes moot. Instead, the sense of anticipation will heighten for each episode.

Choose Your Own Adventure: The fact that viewers can now take an active role in selecting matchups is bound to generate interest. The world is full of armchair matchmakers, and with a text-your-vote method reminiscent of “American Idol” in place, they will finally have an opportunity to emulate Joe Silva. Some might argue that many fans will not have the fighters’ best interests at heart during the voting process, but at its core “The Ultimate Fighter” is a competition. Preserving the best matchups for later only enhances the risk for other variables -- such as injuries -- to enter the equation.

Word of Mouth: At its peak, the UFC on Fox 1 produced 8.8 million viewers and, with 5.7 million viewers on average, was the most-watched fight since 2003. Fox’s heavy-handed promotion of the UFC was felt during the Major League Baseball playoffs, as well as during NFL coverage. Similar tactics should continue in advance of “The Ultimate Fighter’s” FX debut. If all goes as planned, Season 15 could surpass the ratings generated by Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson’s presence on Season 10.

Everyone Has a Story: There is probably a group out there who would not mind if all the pomp and circumstance leading up to each week’s fight was eliminated, but if you have not noticed by now, “The Ultimate Fighter” does not cater to the diehards. The reason “The Ultimate Fighter” alums maintain such longstanding popularity is that people become invested in their personalities. Before he was known as a durable brawler, Chris Leben was the guy who had his slumber interrupted by Josh Koscheck and a garden hose. Such narratives are valuable to “The Ultimate Fighter” brand. Even as the show switches networks, there will be plenty of opportunity to get to know the cast.

The Bad

Set a Curfew: The most devoted followers of mixed martial arts are going to seek out fights, wherever they might be. They are not the concern here, but much of the rest of the show’s most coveted viewing demographic, males in the 18-to-34 range, might not find Friday night all right for fighting. Wednesday was safe; it is not hard to convince people to congregate in front of their televisions in the middle of the week. Friday, on the other hand, has sent many a promising program to an early grave. The UFC must hope that the quest for a social life does not outweigh the love of all things MMA.

Conflict of Interest: Coaching rivalries have been as much a part of the show as the development of young fighters. It is difficult to quantify how many people bought UFC 114 simply because they witnessed multiple chest-to-chest altercations between Evans and Jackson on Season 10 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” but it is likely that their feud helped boost the event’s final numbers significantly. Now, opposing coaches will be expected to conduct their camps as the show airs. While most of the competitors come to “The Ultimate Fighter” from established camps of their own, it could prove difficult to receive proper training if the coaches are more worried about themselves. Depending on how the trial run goes, do not be surprised if some stars balk at coaching invitations down the road.

Prospects Dim: Rare is the talented prospect that escapes the watchful eyes of Silva and Sean Shelby these days. The notion that all of these talents become “The Ultimate Fighter” castmates is dated, however. It is unlikely that the Renan “Barao” Pegados of the world would choose to go the reality-show road when they could just as easily negotiate a contract with the company for more lucrative pay. Plenty of accomplished fighters began their UFC career with White questioning their desire on national television. With a longer season -- the show will last 12 weeks instead of six -- now in place, the most gifted athletes might choose to bypass that route entirely.

More Filler: The UFC’s debut on Fox generated record ratings and featured the coronation of a new heavyweight champion, but there was plenty of grumbling regarding the actual amount of fight time during the broadcast. That same problem could exist on a smaller scale for “The Ultimate Fighter.” If the featured bout of the week ends in a matter of seconds, how will the rest of the hour be filled? In theory, the happenings taped inside the house will occupy most of the first hour, with the fight ready to go near the tail end of the program. Unless producers get really creative, they could have 10-15 minutes to burn on some nights.


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