Jon Jones will coach Season 17 opposite Chael Sonnen. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Ever since Stephan Bonnar, Forrest Griffin and the rest of “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 gang helped the Ultimate Fighting Championship go from a floundering curiosity to legitimate, money-making operation, the promotion has done everything in its power to keep the staggering franchise afloat.
By installing Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as coaches for the upcoming season, the UFC is attempting to do for the reality series in 2013 what Griffin-Bonnar I did for it back in 2005. For all the talk of ratings home runs, the program has been remarkably consistent in its ability to attract less than one million viewers to FX on a weekly basis -- figures that hardly indicate Ruthian levels of brilliance.
There is no question that the marquee pairing of Jones and Sonnen will increase interest in the show, but this is no more than a temporary solution, like slapping the world’s shiniest band-aid on a hemorrhaging bullet wound and hoping for the best. Even if ratings return to a level where weekly damage control is no longer necessary, how will “The Ultimate Fighter” proceed once Jones and Sonnen have left the building? More importantly, does it really matter if the show ever returns to its previous levels of success?
UFC President Dana White, as well as a legion of Fox network employees, will tell you that it does matter, and they have the seven-year contract to prove it. During a recent conference call, FX executive Chuck Saftler promised that “The Ultimate Fighter” would be leaving its unpopular Friday night slot come next year before adding that former UFC partner Spike TV “should watch their ass.”
Again, while leaving Friday nights is the prudent move, it will not permanently cure what ails the show. Earlier this summer, I offered a few thoughts of my own on how to improve “The Ultimate Fighter” brand following the conclusion of Season 15. Upon further consideration, however, it is time to acknowledge that that the series has hit a wall. Will that prevent White and his minions from stubbornly pushing against the barrier in hopes of yet another major breakthrough? Of course not, nor should it, with selling the sport being their job and all.
However, White’s insistence upon shoving multiple iterations of “TUF” down our collective throats each year will only lead to further indifference. Having conducted a rather informal survey among people in my life who occasionally watch MMA and MMA-related programming, I found that very few of the take-it-or-leave-it crowd is tuning in to watch Season 16 on Friday nights. When I complained about the same tired cast of cookie-cutter characters and juvenile antics that have been a staple of the program for years, I received blank stares -- not mutual outrage -- in response. Some had been avoiding the show for a while, and others were not even aware that it was on.
“You’re not missing much,” was all I could offer in reply.
The truth is, after blazing a trail for modern MMA as we know it, “The Ultimate Fighter” has gone the way of the WNBA. How, you ask, is a women’s professional basketball league related to taped programming involving prospective UFC fighters? The answer is simple: both cater to a small niche audience within their respective sports while barely making a dent in the mainstream conscience, and they continue to exist under the considerable umbrellas of their big brother organizations, the NBA for the WNBA, the UFC for “The Ultimate Fighter.” Neither, despite protests to the contrary, is going away anytime soon.
Not long ago, the WNBA launched a marketing campaign revolving around the phrase “Basketball is Basketball.” The idea was that if you were a fan of the game, it would make no difference whether it was Kobe Bryant or Candace Parker on the hardwood. Of course, the logic was flawed because not all basketball is created equal, as anyone who has spent the weekend playing at a local rec center or church can attest.
While the UFC has yet to offer up a “Fighting is Fighting” catchphrase, the same principle applies to a company that insists on selling “The Ultimate Fighter” as a vehicle to consistently produce Octagon-caliber talent. Anyone with a discerning eye can see the show has devolved into a glorified regional promotion with semi-scripted segments. And if fighting is truly fighting, then devoted fans have plenty of other means -- YouTube, free streams, etcetera -- by which to fulfill their weekly violence quota. These days, the show simply does not offer the type of product it once did; “TUF” alums are often lucky to advance past preliminary card status, and declining ratings reflect that.
It is important to realize that once all the big talk about ratings trends subsides, Jones and Sonnen will only briefly resuscitate the series. After that, the show must soldier onward, all while attempting to avoid a WNBA-like existence in relative obscurity. It almost seems unfair, considering the role “The Ultimate Fighter” has played in the UFC’s rise to prominence.
Fighting, as a standalone entity, does not have a shelf life. Reality shows do. Like an aging fighter, “TUF” just does not know when to call it a career.