Sherdog Rewind: An Interview with Eric Shanks

By Jack Encarnacao Sep 11, 2011
The UFC will share the same stage as the NFL and MLB on Fox. | Photo:

On Aug. 18, the Ultimate Fighting Championship signed a landmark seven-year agreement with Fox Sports Media Group.

The deal -- which will reportedly pump $90 to $100 million a year into the UFC in broadcasting rights fees -- begins with a one-hour live fight special on Fox, as Junior dos Santos challenges champion Cain Velasquez for the UFC heavyweight crown on Nov. 12 in Anaheim, Calif. In 2012, fans will see four network specials broadcast on Fox, as well as “The Ultimate Fighter” and UFC Fight Night events on FX and ancillary programming like “UFC Unleashed” and “Countdown” on Fuel TV.

In this interview with Jack Encarnacao of the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Rewind” program, Fox Sports Co-President Eric Shanks discusses the network’s broadcasting deal with the UFC and what it portends for the future.

Encarnacao: We know the tremendous upside for the UFC in this deal. From the FOX perspective, what’s the upside?
Shanks: I think for Fox it’s really the opportunity to get into business with [UFC President] Dana [White] and [UFC CEO] Lorenzo [Fertitta] and the sport that we’ve been trying to get into business with, literally, for the past decade. Rights deals -- they don’t come up all the time. It just so happened that there was the opportunity here. And the sport has ... probably the story of what those guys have done with the UFC is unparalleled in the history of sports. They’ve been able to do it, literally, in one decade. So it’s a mainstream sport; those guys have proven it. And it is extremely popular among the demographic and the audience that every network is looking for.

Encarnacao: You took over Fox Sports last summer after a career that tracked closely with the UFC, from being one of the creators of the “Best Damn Sports Show” on Fox Sports Net that aired a live UFC fight in 2002 to DirecTV, a key pay-per-view partner for the promotion. Is it any coincidence that a year after you ascend to the co-presidency of Fox Sports that the UFC has a deal with Fox?
Shanks: You know, I hadn’t actually thought about it, but now that you kind of go over the last 10 years, I haven’t been able to get away from these guys. It was one of the things that was brought to my attention by [sports agent] Ari [Emanuel] over at [the] William Morris Endeavor [sports agency] soon after I got here. And he knew my love affair with the sport and with what these guys have done and it just ... it was a great coincidence that the rights were available and that all of the stars aligned here at Fox to be able to make it happen.

Encarnacao: Did you have to sell anyone at Fox on the idea? We’ve heard that the higher-ups at some networks over the years have had reservations about accepting the sport.
Shanks: I think that there’s always been, even before I came back, there’s been this kind of undercurrent of great support for the sport. And I think that, again, kind of the stars aligned. Everybody was able to take a step back and really recognize what UFC has done over the past decade. The advertising support that they’ve gotten, the ratings on Spike [TV], the fact that pay-per-view in other sports, in other genres, has declined, while these guys continue to increase globally their share of the pay-per-view market and are the global leader in pay-per-view. And I think once you really reflect, then that undercurrent of support and interest in the sport, coupled with the opportunity that was in front of us, everybody just started to rally around it, rally around it again. So it was not really trying to sell anybody; it was finally taking the time to kind of reflect and say, “OK, now is the time.”

Encarnacao: It must have been refreshing, too, to see concerns about MMA maybe being something less than a sport kind of melt away over the years.
Shanks: Yeah, I think it’s amazing. As much as this country likes to kind of look towards the future, this one sport, a lot of people still have in their mind what this sport was over a decade ago: only fighting in states that actually didn’t even have an athletic commission, no rules and regulations around safety. And then Dana and Lorenzo come in and completely turn the sport from going into a black hole to having fighter safety, paying the fighters a fair wage, giving bonuses above and beyond the contracts. Now, they only fight in states that have really strong athletic commissions. So people still have this kind of memory of the controversy of over a decade ago, but if you look at the past decade, there’s no sport that could be more mainstream than the UFC.

Encarnacao: As a young producer, you helped develop the virtual yellow line on the NFL football field that marks where the first down line is, and you were involved in the FoxTrax hockey puck that glowed on the screen as it flew around. Not to say you’re committing to anything this early, but have you kicked around any similar production ideas for UFC broadcasts on Fox?
Shanks: All of those best ideas -- and I’m not taking credit for the idea for any of those, [as] I was [just] part of the team that worked on it -- but all of the good thinking happens in the shower before you come to work. And I’ve been spending some time while shaving, in the shower, thinking about things for the UFC. So nothing’s come to mind yet, but between Dana, Lorenzo and all of the great producers that we have over here -- [Fuel TV Executive Vice President] George Greenberg and everybody -- I’m sure that we will be talking about what type of enhancements would make sense for the UFC on Fox.

Encarnacao: Is it a unique challenge for you guys to produce, in that it’s a man-on-man combat sport as opposed to a team sport?
Shanks: That’s an interesting question. I think that [in] team sports you always have to try and pick out stars on a team. You try and let people connect with a particular story of a star, and “Why should I care about that individual?” I think because sports broadcasting is all about telling the story, telling the narrative, help me decide who I think should win and who I think should not win, in a team sport, you have to kind of decide, who do you want them to care about? The quarterback? Do you want them to care about the linebacker? In the UFC, in a man-on-man sport, that’s pretty simple. When you come on the air on Nov. 12, you’re going to be able to tell people, “OK, here’s fighter and here’s where he came from and here’s why you should care about him -- and Fighter B.” It’s actually great for storytelling, because it simplifies things and you do have that pure kind of global language of man-versus-man in a ring and only one person can win.

Encarnacao: Can we expect a special UFC theme song, like the one I have stuck in my head after every football game?
Shanks: The theme song is such an unbelievable theme song that what we’ve done over the past year is we’ve used the “NFL on Fox” theme really as the Fox Sports theme. We went into an edit bay and we laid the “NFL on Fox” theme over baseball footage and then over NASCAR footage, and we said, “You know what? I don’t care what sport it is, that theme gets me pumped up and gets me ready to watch, whether it’s baseball, NASCAR or football.” So that theme has now transformed itself into the Fox Sports theme, and that is the theme that you’ll hear on Nov. 12 to introduce “UFC on Fox” to the world.

Encarnacao: Some are looking at this Fox deal as something of a restart in terms of reaching people who haven’t given the sport much of a chance in the past. Do you think it’s important from Fox’s perspective to explain what the techniques are and what the sport is to these new viewers? Dana White has said we live in the bubble, we know what a triangle is, we know what an omaplata is, while most people at home don’t. Do you see a role for sort of explaining the intricacies of the sport again, as if it’s really on TV for the first time?
Shanks: I think you have to recognize that your audience is a broader audience on the broadcast network. And if you watch our NFL on Fox pregame show, if you watch our games, our philosophy is that, first and foremost, sports is entertainment, and we’re not a huge Xs and Os network. We like to think we’re more about storytelling and we’re more about letting you enjoy the game. I think if you want hardcore Xs and Os, you’re going to watch the NFL Network or “NFL Live” on ESPN to get that fix. So we also like to think that you kind of coat the information pill with a little bit of sugar and a little bit of entertainment, so the approach of UFC on the Fox network is going to be the same. If you come on the air and you do full-page graphics and animations on what is a triangle, I think you’re going to hear the TVs click off all around the country. So through the course of the broadcast, you educate people, but I think the main thing is, OK, number one, I think on Nov. 12, why should I care about this sport? Why is it here? Why is it so popular? And then, who’s going to win the fight? Why should I care about these two fighters? And then I think that [UFC color analyst] Joe Rogan and [play-by-play announcer Mike] Goldberg, as the fight goes along, that’s when you start to get a little bit more of that information and technique, is in the course of the broadcast, in the course of the fight itself, in the analysis of a fight.

Encarnacao: Will you or Fox want any input into what fights appear on your network or will you let the UFC decide matchmaking unilaterally?
Shanks: (Laughs) They’re the experts in matchmaking. I don’t think you can argue with their ability -- Dana and Lorenzo’s ability to do matchmaking. Look, I’m a fan, so I’m a fan that happens to be in business with them on the non-pay-per-view side. So I just happen to be a fan that can actually have the debate with them. Whether they actually care what I think or will actually give creed to a guy who’s coming in and now all of a sudden thinks he’s a matchmaker, we’ll see. We were at dinner the other night and Dana was, like, “You know, some guys, they get to know us, and then within a week they think they’re a matchmaker.” And I said, “Well, Dana, it probably will only take me a day or two for me to think I’m a matchmaker.” We’ve been talking about [whether or not] there [can] even [be] a show [built] around that on Fuel [TV], right? Can you put together a show that has Dana, Lorenzo, other experts and maybe even fighters and actually kind of debate the pros and cons of certain matches that you might actually put together? I actually think it would be a really fun show.

Encarnacao: The Nov. 12 show is going to be one hour long, but how long do you envision these Fox specials being? Two hours? Three? What day and time? Anything like that?
Shanks: There’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve, and the guys at UFC, all the way up and down the line, whether its Dana, Lorenzo or [Executive Producer] Craig Borsari, they get it. They get the TV side of this, and it shows with the strategy that they’ve taken both in the U.S. and internationally. So we’re going to see; we’re going to evaluate how well we all think that a one-hour show starting at nine o’clock does on Nov. 12. We’ve jointly agreed to say, “Alright, look, can it do better in a different time slot? A different length? Did it work for us?” And we’re going to make changes if necessary to bring the absolute best product to the fans on television. So that’s going to be the guiding principle -- is what’s the absolute best product in the best timeslot that we can make?

Encarnacao: The absolute best product is something I’m sure fans will expect, considering how big the fights will have to be to live up to that stature. The UFC will continue to do pay-per-views, and a big part of the Spike deal was that they plugged their PPVs all over all content that broadcasted all day and night. From your perspective, is that part of the give and take of the relationship with the UFC -- that you agree to allow them to plug their PPV events on Fox? Or do you want the focus to be solely on what they offer to Fox, as opposed to maybe help them make money when they’re not on Fox?
Shanks: It’s really the circle of life in that [if] pay-per-view does well, we think that UFC on Fox and on FX and Fuel will do well and vice versa. I think that gets back to the earlier comment about just how much these guys get it and the strategy that they’ve taken. If the UFC on Fox pulls a huge number and creates new fans, it means more pay-per-view [dollars]. And if you have more hardcore fans for pay-per-view, that just means they’re going to have a huge appetite for what is on FX and what’s on Fuel and what’s on the broadcast networks. So it’s really ... I don’t think anybody can argue that there is a circle here that’s been created that will just feed from one thing to the other. And at no time during the negotiation or the conversation was there really any conversation about, “Well, this is going to benefit your pay-per-view too much and so we need you to pull back, or this is going to benefit broadcast too much.” And it’s just been -- up until now, and we haven’t even done fight one -- it’s been a match made in heaven.

Encarnacao: Does Fox, in making such a long-term commitment to the UFC with a seven-year deal, see the potential for MMA as a true sport in the long-term? And what I mean by that is people will look at the UFC as a sport they follow to see who’s the best, instead of a product that they expect some sort of defined entertainment value out of? People review UFC PPVs and fights on the basis of how entertaining or exciting they were, almost like a movie review. People love an exciting football or baseball game, but they don’t complain or resolve to stop watching the sport if they see a game that’s boring. Will there come a time where the sport is stable enough that they don’t have to worry about “selling” every fight and can count on a stable audience and network revenue like the other sports?
Shanks: I think from a pure business perspective being able to diversify your revenue streams is really important. I mean, look what’s happening in the broadcast world and the pay TV world, and these guys kind of have the ultimate diversification. Not only do they have pay-per-view, they have pay TV, they have ad-supported broadcast. And, you know, their pay TV is across multiple networks now. But I think that sustainability is really all about creating stars. And these guys, through “The Ultimate Fighter,” [are] creating stars that people care about, and not just one star at a time but multiple stars that people actually care about. And that’s what sustains the interest in the sport, I think, first and foremost, and then the fact that you put on really consistent, really upscale matches and performances and fights from all those stars. Look, I think nobody can argue that this is head and shoulders above what boxing does, which is maybe one fight a year, one fight every 14 months that people even know who the fighters are and get interested in, and then there’s absolutely no discussion about boxing whatsoever. So I think the quality and the consistency of the product that you’re going to have across Fox and the pay-per-view, I think that there is what you’re talking about, that interest level. And it’s not just going to be about kind of scrutinizing a pay-per-view and then waiting for the next one.

Encarnacao: What level of promotion do you envision that UFC fighters and shows will receive during other Fox programming, like NFL games?
Shanks: Well, nothing’s going to get in the way of a game. That’s definitely not our philosophy. Nothing gets in the way of actually doing the best football broadcast that you can do. But, for example, the very day that we announced this deal, we had a preseason NFL football game and we ran two 10-second promos for the UFC on Fox coming this fall in those games that night. So we were prepared to put our money where our mouth is. And in the highest-rated telecast of the night in the country, we started promoting a deal that we just announced that day. So we’re going to we have unbelievable entertainment assets, whether it’s the launch of probably what will be the number one show in America, “X-Factor,” obviously “American Idol” [and] all of our sports properties. This will get the full treatment from Fox for a launch, and we’re excited about some of the ideas that have been kind of percolating here internally about taking the Fox attitude and marrying it with the UFC in a marketing fashion.

Encarnacao: A lot of the excitement is in what the pre- and post-fight shows might look like. Any plans for that type of coverage on Fox, like we see for football?
Shanks: It’s still too soon, but we will sit around and make sure that we have all the right decisions made before we let the cat out of the bag.

Encarnacao: The UFC’s television ratings on cable have dipped a bit from 2005-09. On Spike, UFC live events averaged a 1.7, but that average was 1.26 in 2010 and is at about 1.37 this year. We’ve seen mixed martial arts on network TV before. On CBS in April 2010, the last time we saw an MMA event on CBS, it was a 1.8 rating and averaged 2.9 million homes. The highest MMA has reached on CBS on average was 4.3 million homes. Are those acceptable ranges for Fox? And was there any concern over what looked to be a dip in cable ratings for the UFC in recent years?
Shanks: I think, first of all, CBS is probably the wrong demographic to be trying to make MMA work. I think that, again, when we made the announcement, I’m sure that, and we’ve seen it right in social media in all the fan responses, people are wondering why it took so long for Fox and the UFC to get married. Because it seemed like we should have done it a long time ago. So I think there’s a huge difference between what Fox, FX and Fuel bring to the table compared to CBS and Spike. Now, you remember, “The Ultimate Fighter” was once the number one show in all of cable. And still, today, it’s a Top 30 show, and I think it’s even higher than that when you just take a look at men, [ages] 18 to 34. So as the entertainment landscape has fragmented over the past 10 years, this has continued to be one of the top performers. Now you can always look back and say, “What happened to this and what happened to that?” I don’t really care. What I care about is when Dana and Lorenzo came up and started pitching the idea of what they want to do to freshen up “The Ultimate Fighter” that got us more excited than what had happened in the past; especially when you compare the excitement that [FX President] John Landgraf and his team at FX, just the overwhelming excitement they have to be able to work with “The Ultimate Fighter” and kind of bring that into the FX fold. Who knows, maybe you’ll see the “Sons of Anarchy” have an episode involving going to a UFC fight. I mean, the stuff that we can do is just unbelievable. I think that we’re looking forward rather than kind of looking at what has happened over the last few years.
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