Live Support: Why IFL’s Recent TV Deal Matters

By Scott Holmes Oct 6, 2007
At first glance the recent announcement that one hour of the Nov. 3 IFL 2007 World Grand Prix semifinals will be televised live on MyNetworkTV seems like a baby step. In reality the move is a huge leap for the relatively new fight league.

The phrase "24-hour news cycle" gets thrown around quite a bit these days, referencing all the news sources and media outlets that are increasingly available. The coverage of MMA is a prime example of how quickly information is churned out.

The IFL has spared no expense in an effort to put out its best product. At the end of the day, though, MMA fans want to see events as they transpire, and IFL shows have been airing after the fact.

Keeping fans interested in seeing fights that have already happened is next to impossible with all the events taking place weekly. Two weeks can be a lifetime.

IFL brass had seemed reluctant to admit that this was the elephant in the room for the organization and the "IFL Battleground" shows. They pointed to the fact that another three-lettered organization also used a packaged program. However, in contrast, the success of the UFC does not hinge completely on its gate receipts or reality show.

For the IFL, building a television audience is paramount to its success. Armed with the news of live fights and a new format, the company is feeding off the energy and hopes the buzz will continue.

"Fighting is all about instant results," says IFL commissioner Kurt Otto. "(Fans) want to know who won and how."

The IFL faced some hurdles to the live-fight format. "The most challenging thing, number one, as far as when you're dealing with network TV, is the obligations that they have made to other sports or other shows already," Otto says. "When you do have success, then obviously they want you to be a part of that. … So we've had some success, and we're showing that we are turning the corner, and that's a good sign from MyNetwork to give us an opportunity like this."

It wasn't as though the IFL wasn't interested in live shows. Of course they were, but for a new organization trying out a new MMA format, the IFL had to take what the networks would give them. It was a matter of spoon feeding the product, Otto says, and now MyNetworkTV is giving the IFL a bigger opportunity.

"(MyNetworkTV) made some room for us, and for us that's a win-win, and we are going to prove ourselves," Otto says. "It's put up or shut up, and we need to prove that we need to be live. That's what MyNetwork is allowing us to do, so it's very, very important for our fans to tune in and show support, and let's get those ratings up and show what the IFL can get done."

Both Fox Sports Net and MyNetworkTV say they have benefited from IFL shows.

FSN's inaugural season of the IFL on Friday nights from 11 p.m. to midnight finished with a 0.24 household rating, a representative for the regional sports network told The rating represents a 41 percent increase from the program combination on Friday nights over the same period.

The notable increase in viewers is across the board, as all of the major demographics are up at least 50 percent, with older males up a striking 83 percent. Younger males are also contributing, says FSN. Men ages 18 to 24 are up 54 percent from the same window in 2006. These improvements place the IFL among the top-rated national programs on FSN to date.

MyNetworkTV had success with "IFL Battleground," typically sitting at a .6/1 share on Mondays and a .4/1 share on Saturdays, which is still 25 percent higher than previous programming, according to ratings provided by the IFL. With those numbers it lowers the risk for MyNetworkTV to air events live.

Additionally, after watching its English-language versions of telenovelas tank, the network has overhauled its direction by adding more male-oriented shows. Greg Meidel, the president of MyNetworkTV, has been the one shaking the lineup. In a news release, he said MyNetworkTV is excited to showcase the IFL and "give viewers the opportunity to see MMA action unfold live on broadcast television."

The IFL seems to have another feather in its cap, too, with the announcement of Jay Larkin as the new Chief Operating Officer. Larkin joins the IFL after 20 years at Showtime, where he put together a multitude of concerts by big-name artists as well as boxing events.

"The first thing we are doing is looking at our existing relationships, our existing commitments," Larkin says, adding that the IFL will be a "leaner and meaner" operation. "We're doing a lot of internal things that the fan won't necessarily see but will decidedly and favorably impact our business model here.

"In terms of what the MMA fan will see, we're heading towards a place where out of attrition we'll become more competitive. We are looking at more and more guys breaking through the team format and becoming individual stars. We are looking at creating more excitement in the live venue. When I first came on six months ago as a consultant, our live shows were running four and a half to five hours. Our live shows now are under two and a half hours, and most of that is fight content. So one of the main things I'm going to be doing is trying to create more of an aura of excitement around the actual events and taking the sport more mainstream as possible."

The IFL isn't just making changes at the executive and broadcast level either. New coaches Ian Freeman (Pictures) and Mario Sperry (Pictures) will start next season. For now the number of teams will remain at 12, but there will be a concerted effort to flush out below-average fighters and bring in better talent to help round out the teams.

Beefing up rosters will also help with injuries, which dramatically affected last season when some coaches were left scrambling to replace their starting five fighters.

To strengthen the teams and add fresh faces, the IFL is holding open tryouts in October at LA Boxing gyms in California, New York and Illinois, as part of the promotion's 2008 draft.

Should the IFL find success showcasing fights on live television, someday the MMA league could follow in the footsteps of the NBA and NFL and have drafts broadcast live.

If so, they'll likely need more than an hour.
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