Illustration: Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com
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.
Confession: I watched Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series for the first time ever this week. I had of course watched many of the individual fights from both seasons and had taken in plenty of highlights, but this was the first time I had ever watched an entire episode live.
In fairness, I’m pretty bad at taking in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s ancillary content. I never watched “Lookin’ for a Fight,” and the last time I watched an episode of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Julian Lane was begging Michael Hill to let him bang. Again. I don’t know if Lane was ever granted his wish, at least until his return invite to the show years later. I do assume that season was where Neil Magny looked around the house, decided “Hey, fighting every two weeks is pretty cool” and charted the next several years of his career.
Anyway, back to DWTNCS. Pretty good night of fights, wasn’t it? Antonina Shevchenko pulled off the seemingly impossible by delivering a performance that managed to be completely dominant and weirdly unimpressive at the same time. No matter, as the older sister of UFC flyweight contender Valentina Shevchenko likely had a pre-punched ticket to the big show waiting, pending only her victory by any method. In another improbable occurrence, Josh Parisian managed to throw three spinning attacks in rapid succession without his fight trunks falling down -- an impressive feat for any heavyweight forced to wear the mandatory DWTNCS kit. Don’t believe me? Next time you watch a heavyweight bout on the Contender Series, take a shot every time one of the fighters hikes his shorts up. That the third and final spinning strike happened to ice opponent Greg Rebello is even better. In the aftermath of the show, Parisian also managed to set a new record for “fighter most visibly depressed to be invited to compete on ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’”
The pacing was sensational, one fight right after the other with an absolute minimum of bulls---. If a fight was over suddenly because of a sensational knockout out of nowhere, of which there were several? The next fight was up in minutes. There wasn’t time to get bored. If any of the fights had been really mediocre, there wouldn’t have been time to stew on it. If you’re trying to get people to consume your product, and that product is entertainment, you really can’t underestimate the value of, well, being as entertaining as possible.
However enjoyable the show was, the key attraction of DWTNCS to me is the “T” for Tuesday. Because the show aired on a midweek evening before primetime -- or bedtime, for that matter -- it was easy to watch. I ended up live-chatting my way through the fights with my editor-in-chief, sharing observations and reactions and generally giving those five fights far, far more attention and scrutiny than they would have received on a weekend broadcast. In fact, on many weekends, I would pass completely on watching the type of fights that end up on the Contender Series, which by definition feature mostly competitors who are not UFC material, whether they were on a UFC or Bellator MMA undercard or a regional event that had the bad fortune to run on a busy weekend. Instead, by broadcasting on Tuesday, at a relatively convenient time and in a very watchable format, those fights enjoyed my undivided attention.
The question is one of bandwidth -- mental bandwidth in this case, as data bandwidth hasn’t adversely impacted my ability to watch fights since the early 2000s. I feel as though every other week in this space I’m harping on the fact that it’s impractical and bordering on impossible to consume 100 percent of the UFC’s product, and that says nothing of the many worthwhile offerings from other promotions. While cost certainly figures into that, the time commitment would be a burden even if the fights were all free. It would still require committing at least a full eight-hour day, four out of every five weekends, plus several hours during the week. That isn’t a hobby; that’s a part-time job. Oh, and there’s no offseason, and there are a couple times a year you’d have to watch 16-20 hours of fights over the course of a weekend. Now it’s starting to sound almost like being in the National Guard, too.
This isn’t a bar to people becoming -- or staying -- hardcore MMA fans. It shouldn’t be, at least. There are tens of millions of people in the United States who would consider themselves serious football fans. None of them watch every single NFL game. Most big-time football fans that I know watch a couple of games on Sunday, usually their own favorite team and maybe another game or two with heavy implications for their division, fantasy team or investment portfolio. They catch the rest of it via highlights, news, analyst shows and social media. Even that commitment only applies to the four or five months of the season and playoffs before it shrinks to following the occasional headline for most of the rest of the year. That’s the long and short of being “into football,” and the NFL not only recognizes that fact but builds around it. If the NFL wants to focus fan attention on a particular team or game, it sticks it into a Sunday night or Monday night slot.
Obviously, the specifics don’t line up exactly. The NFL generally uses isolated broadcast slots to exalt its top performers, while DWTNCS uses its weekday format to lend visibility to an up-and-coming product that would otherwise get lost in the noise. Nonetheless, an acceptance of the fact that even the most diehard fans of today’s sport have to pick and choose what to consume might lead to a different strategy. Speaking as a diehard fan myself, I have approached MMA like a buffet rather than an eating contest for at least six or seven years. In fact, my guess is that 2008 is the last year that I watched every UFC pay-per-view live. Unless work obligates me to buy a pay-per-view or watch a free event in real time, I decide whether I’m going to buy the PPV at home, take it in at the local wings-n-beer or catch the highlights the next day largely based on how interesting the fights look and whether the card features any of my preferred fighters to watch.
A weekend jammed with fight cards is largely an artifact of combat sports’ long history of being a live-and-in-person phenomenon. If organizations local to me, such as Fury Fighting Championship or even Resurrection Fighting Alliance, tried putting on an event on a Tuesday night, I can only imagine it would be a disaster. However, at the highest levels of the sport, while live gate receipts are still important, PPV or TV revenues are much bigger. It’s a lesson some organizations learn. Not wanting to get lost in that noise, the Professional Fighters League has embraced a Thursday night format, and while only time will tell how successful it ends up being, it is surely working out better for the promotion than competing directly with the UFC on Saturday nights. I know I’ve seen more PFL fights than I would have otherwise. Other organizations sort of learn; Bellator habitually runs events on Fridays as well as Saturdays, periodically choosing to tussle with the 800-pound gorilla. On the occasions it does, I feel mostly depressed at the waste; as a fan, I’m trying to drink from a firehose, forced to choose which fights I will enjoy in real time and which fights I’ll catch later.
This isn’t a call for the immediate drawing and quartering of the traditional weekend pay-per-view model. Goodness knows there are enough opinion scribblers out there, myself included, banging that drum on a weekly basis. If there’s no immediate revolution, though, a little evolution might be nice. Make the most of my available bandwidth -- time, money, mental effort and emotional capital -- by spreading out the product a little bit and avoiding spikes in service. Meanwhile, I’ll check you next Tuesday.