The Doggy Bag: Fox of a Deal

Fox of a Deal

Sep 4, 2011
Cain Velasquez (above) and Junior dos Santos are going to escort MMA to the next level. | Photo: Sherdog.com



Everyone answers to somebody, so we, the staff at Sherdog.com, have decided to defer to our readers. “The Doggy Bag” gives you the opportunity to speak about what is on your mind from time to time.

Our reporters, columnists, radio hosts and editors will chime in with our answers and thoughts, so keep the emails coming.

This week, Sherdog.com readers sound off on a diverse host of hot topics, including UFC’s deal with Fox, lots of Anderson Silva talk -- including Yushin Okami, Georges St. Pierre and Jon Jones -- the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix and Dream’s bantamweight grand prix.

Nice to see MMA’s exposure growing so fast with the deal between the UFC and Fox lasting seven years. What kind of numbers and ratings do they have to do in order to renew on their deal with a better contract on the UFC’s end? How about adapting their business approach with getting away from the pay-per-view model? Can they rely solely on advertising and sponsors with the networks, or is it their mindset that they will maintain the stance of PPV is their biggest income? -- Peter, from London

Jack Encarnacao, Sherdog Radio Network “Rewind” host: Well, Peter, as Friday’s announcement of Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos for the Fox premiere showed, you were on to something in wondering where the UFC heavyweight champion fits in all of this.

The ratings question is a very important one but will be the hardest to get an answer to, I suspect. Fox Sports Chairman David Hill was asked directly on Friday’s conference call what potential ratings Fox is floating to advertisers for UFC events. The question was first met with a brief but pregnant silence. Then Hill said his golden rule is to never predict ratings, because it’s a “zero-sum game.”

To me, a number that does not eclipse the largest audience that mixed martial arts has done to date would be a failure. The record is somewhere between six million and 7.2 million viewers.

The audience peaked at 6.1 million for the Sept. 30, 2009 broadcast of “The Ultimate Fighter” on Spike TV, which featured a fight between Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson and Roy Nelson. Amazingly, despite being on cable and therefore available in much fewer homes, “The Ultimate Fighter” number approached the 6.51 million peak for MMA on network television. That was drawn by the Kimbo Slice vs. James Thompson fight on CBS in May 2008.

Note that these are peak audiences as reflected by the average viewership for a 15-minute block of a total broadcast, which is pretty much the standard measurement used in the television industry. More detailed minute-by-minute data reported in 2008 by Ivan Trembow for MMA Weekly showed that, at one point, 7.28 million people were watching Slice vs. Thompson; 6.52 million, at one point, viewed the October 2006 fight between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz on Spike TV. With DVR viewership factored in, the first-run airing of Slice vs. Nelson reached 7.25 million people.

If numbers on Fox come in lower than that, the UFC would almost have to concede that MMA is no more viable a television attraction than is Kimbo Slice -- a sobering thought. Referencing the Slice-Nelson rating, UFC President Dana White said on Friday’s conference call that he expects the Nov. 12 rating to “blow that number out of the water.”

On Aug. 27, Fox averaged 1.9 million viewers in prime time, airing reruns of “Cops,” “American Dad” and “Cleveland.” The UFC must, at the very least, improve on that, and it will, sans some truly horrible promotion. The least the UFC can do for Fox is boost their Saturday prime time average.

Are NFL numbers possible? The 2010 NFL regular season games on Fox averaged 20.1 million viewers -- a record. UFC brass has said the free TV broadcast in Brazil of Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort in February attracted more than 30 million viewers. If the UFC can approach that number on Fox, suddenly MMA will be among the most sought-after advertising buys in American television.

One may look at the average numbers that EliteXC and Strikeforce managed to do on CBS -- a low of 2.6 million and a high of 4.3 million for an entire broadcast -- and make a judgment about MMA as a network attraction. However, in an interview I conducted with Fox Sports executive Eric Shanks for Sherdog Radio, he asserted that the CBS audience is “probably the wrong demographic to be trying to make MMA work.” From hosting a tailgate party before the Nov. 12 event to running ads for the UFC during all of its sports games, it is clear Fox thinks it can take MMA to another level.

If the UFC’s viewership is near that of other sports after this seven-year, $90-100 million FOX deal is up, it can command rights fees that will change its business model and possibly eliminate the need for pay-per-view. The UFC made an estimated $200 million in PPV revenue in 2010, so it clearly needs to keep that revenue stream open for the time being and save its biggest-drawing fights for that platform. At the end of the FOX deal, if the UFC has blown up from a ratings standpoint, it could be looking at MLB ($702 million) or NBA ($930 million) rights fees. That kind of dough from a network means you have truly been accepted as a sport in this country.

I think asking whether the UFC will be forced to put its biggest draws on Fox is kind of missing the point. The idea is that broadcasting on Fox, with concentrated network support, will bring people oodles of people to the table who do not necessarily know Brock Lesnar from Nik Lentz. The people who do, just like the people who knew who Kimbo Slice was, will only move the needle by two or three million viewers. That is not enough to maximize the potential benefit of this Fox deal. If the UFC truly realizes the promise this deal holds, it will not matter who is in the cage on fight night. Like Sunday football, the fact that the sport is on will be enough reason for Joe Six Pack to tune in.

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