The Bottom Line: A Curious Approach

By Todd Martin Jan 6, 2021
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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It did not come with as much fanfare as previous announcements regarding major television broadcasts, but the Ultimate Fighting Championship has confirmed that MMA will return to network television in less than two weeks with an ABC show on Jan. 16. While the difference between ABC and ESPN is not as great as it once was, network television is still available in more homes and produces greater ratings than most anything on cable television. When MMA companies have that enhanced spotlight, they put on major fights, not only in the hopes of creating new fans but to encourage future collaboration.

The idea behind the UFC’s ABC premiere could not be clearer. Conor McGregor, the sport’s greatest drawing card, returns to pay-per-view on Jan. 23. UFC 257, where McGregor rematches Dustin Poirier, has a good shot at being the most-ordered pay-per-view event of any kind in 2021. The event on Jan. 16 is an opportunity to heavily advertise McGregor’s fight the next weekend and to help maximize pay-per-view buys that will line Disney coffers. That part of the equation makes all the sense in the world. What’s surprising is that the UFC isn’t putting forward more of a marquee card for the occasion.

Max Holloway-Calvin Kattar is a perfectly fine ESPN+ main event. It has stakes, as Holloway looks to rebound from consecutive losses to Alexander Volkanovski and Kattar seeks the biggest victory of his career. It has some star power: A former champion, Holloway is a popular figure within the sport, even if Kattar has a decidedly low profile for a fighter of his caliber. However, this is clearly not the sort of attraction that will compel casual fans to tune in. The supporting fights, led by the return of Santiago Ponzinibbio, don’t jump off the page, either. It’s not the sort of card that fight fans are going to tell their friends to make sure not to miss.

The Jan. 16 card stands in marked contrast to what the UFC has done in the past with debuts on major television outlets. For its Fox and ESPN debuts, the UFC featured pay-per-view main event attractions. On Fox, it was Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos in a UFC heavyweight title fight. Velasquez had vanquished Brock Lesnar to win the title in his previous fight, and he was developing into a significant star in his own right. The Spanish-language media was out in full force in Anaheim, California, in addition to all the major media outlets covering an event that featured a red-carpet ceremony with various Fox personalities.

The UFC’s debut on ESPN/ESPN+ offered another PPV-caliber main event, as Henry Cejudo defended the flyweight title against bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw in a champion-versus-champion matchup. Cejudo was coming off the biggest win of his career against Demetrious Johnson, while Dillashaw was coming off consecutive knockouts over Cody Garbrandt. The fact that such a major fight was taking place on the ESPN+ streaming service was a signal of just what a priority that service was to all parties involved, and the card was a major factor in driving subscriptions for ESPN+.

There are of course differences between the ABC debut and the two previous debuts. In each of those instances, the UFC was not only debuting on a new network but beginning a new partnership with a major media entity. There was more of an incentive to put its best foot forward. This time, the UFC is debuting on a bigger platform but a platform that is still under the same corporate umbrella. Still, there is every incentive to entice Disney to feature the UFC on ABC more in the future, and the best way to do so is by delivering viewers. It’s unclear whether the Jan. 16 card will come through in that regard.

The challenge for the UFC is compounded by the fact that the card will run head-to-head with television’s most intimidating ratings behemoth: the NFL. When the UFC had the deal with Fox, it was occasionally able to use football as a lead-in. It was a major boon whenever that occurred. Now, the NFL is direct competition, and both sports draw from a similar audience. The NFL does provide an excuse to a degree if ratings are weak, but the UFC doesn’t want to be humiliated with its first ABC foray. That’s why the decision to roll out on ABC without the big guns is a curious one.

The fact that the UFC is clearly not that concerned is in some ways a positive sign. It reflects the strength of the current agreement with Disney and ESPN. That partnership has expanded into a broader multimedia enterprise to draw ratings, sell streaming subscriptions and move pay-per-views. All parties seem happy. Still, there’s always room for even more growth. As such, the UFC may look back on this first ABC show as a missed opportunity—one that it had made sure not to pass up in the past. Advertisement

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