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As the Ultimate Fighting Championship wrapped up its seven-year relationship with Fox on Saturday in Milwaukee, it marked the end of a period that will likely wind up underappreciated for its significance. The Spike TV era was so pivotal to the development of the sport that it towers over the period that came after it, leading to relatively little reflection on the way the UFC’s relationship with Fox has shaped the place of MMA in the American sports landscape.
It doesn’t feel like it was all that long ago that Fox was hosting a red-carpet party in Anaheim, California, at the site of its UFC debut: Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos for the heavyweight title. It had been a little under seven years since the UFC had debuted on Spike TV -- a period of massive change. There was the pay-per-view boom, the regulation expansion across the country, the purchase of Pride Fighting Championships, the creation of a host of new superstars and so much more. With so much change in the preceding seven years, there were lofty hopes about what the next seven years would bring.
As it turns out, the Fox years wouldn’t be defined by dizzying evolution. Rather, they would serve as a period when previous changes calcified into something clear and easily recognizable. For better and for worse, the identity of the sport over the next 25 years has been solidified by the formula that has been established. The heady days where MMA could go in so many different directions have ended.
As the UFC leaves Fox for ESPN, MMA is completely mainstream in a way that’s so clear that few fans even think about the issue anymore. MMA’s battle for acceptance was a significant consideration for a long period. It wasn’t that long ago when MMA fans would celebrate little gestures that demonstrated they weren’t held in contempt by the larger sports world. Fox played a major role in that shift. It was hard to view MMA as a loathsome blood sport when it was cross-promoted with the NFL and presented with all the same trappings as sports’ top properties.
The flip side of the UFC’s firmer identity as a mainstream entity is that it is clearly a niche sport. When fan interest was growing exponentially, it was hard to know how big the sport could get. Many, including big MMA fans, feel that a combat sport is fundamentally limited in appeal. However, boxing was once of the most popular American sports, and football’s violence is clearly part of its appeal. Regardless of where MMA might have been able to end up if things had been handled differently, it’s hard to imagine a period of significant growth coming anytime soon. MMA has plateaued at a certain level of popularity, and it’s going to be difficult to grow with most shows taking place on pay-per-view or ESPN Plus.
That is another important part of the legacy of the UFC-Fox partnership: the proliferation of product. Back in the days of Spike TV, there would be fewer than 10 live television specials a year. Most shows were major pay-per-views, and there weren’t so many shows that it was difficult for average fans to keep up. Now, there are more television events than pay-per-views and television rights fees are a big driver of revenue. This is more reversible than other trends, but it will be difficult for the UFC to one day give up some of that revenue and cut the fighters needed to run a lighter schedule. The UFC ultimately decided to be baseball more than football when it comes to product volume.
During its time with Fox, the UFC also settled on a basic approach to what it will put on television. When it debuted on Fox with a heavyweight title fight that drew the biggest rating in UFC history, many thought those sorts of fights would be a regular occurrence on free television to create new fans. Ultimately, Velasquez-dos Santos ended up being an outlier. Rightly or wrongly, the UFC concluded that those sorts of fights weren’t worth putting on television and that they would be saved for pay-per-view. Arguably, the UFC gave Spike TV two fights bigger for their time than anything it ever gave Fox: Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock 3 and Quinton Jackson vs. Dan Henderson.
The UFC was more experimental with its approach to television earlier on. Now, it’s pretty easy to recognize which sorts of fights will be pay-per-view headliners and which will be featured on free television. Television title fights are usually reserved for divisions with limited interest, and even then, for challengers with less appeal. There’s a firmly established orthodoxy to the matchmaking.
Looking back, there were some important UFC moments on Fox’s television properties. The second UFC card on Fox set up two different massive pay-per-views: Rashad Evans’ win over Phil Davis set up his title fight with Jon Jones, and Chael Sonnen’s victory over Michael Bisping set up his championship opportunity against Anderson Silva. Benson Henderson took part in a couple of marquee lightweight title defenses against Nate Diaz and Gilbert Melendez. T.J. Dillashaw had two of his biggest career bouts: title fights against Renan Barao and Dominick Cruz. Finally, Conor McGregor’s bout with Dennis Siver in Boston, cross-promoted with the NFL, was instrumental in McGregor’s rise. However, the biggest moments still overwhelmingly took place on pay-per-view -- a trend that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
As the UFC switches to a new television partner in ESPN, there are plenty of question marks. The way that ESPN uses its platforms to promote the UFC’s pay-per-views is crucial, as is the extent of ESPN Plus’ growth, given how many fights will air on that service. Still, the basic template established on Fox is likely to govern much of what is to come. The UFC’s short- to medium-term knowns are now greater than its unknowns. The UFC’s relationship with Fox has, more than anything else, created certainty where mystery once existed.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.