Showtime's Hershman Declares Ratings ‘Victory’

By Greg Savage Aug 20, 2009
Strikeforce “Carano vs. Cyborg” was a homerun according to Ken Hershman, senior vice president of Showtime Sports. The premium cable network did its biggest numbers yet in the sport with the first mixed martial arts card headlined by a women’s bout.

Since Saturday’s event, which went head-to-head against a replay of UFC 100 on Spike TV, numbers have been flying and statements have been made about which show actually did better.

In an interview with the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” show Wednesday, Hershman, predictably, planted the Showtime flag atop the ratings mountain, declaring Showtime’s higher share superior to the UFC’s much bigger audience.

“It’s typical television behavior,” said Hershman of a press release sent out by Spike TV on Tuesday. “Everyone wants to promote their agenda and their network and we are prepared to engage in that discussion because we are very proud of how our show did.”

Preliminary numbers show that Strikeforce averaged about 576,000 viewers, while UFC counter-programming on Spike drew an estimated two million viewers of the 98 million homes it’s available in. Strikeforce reportedly peaked with an audience of around 860,000 during the Gina Carano-Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos fight (The network’s highest marks thus far had been 522,000 for a Kimbo Slice-David “Tank” Abbott showdown in February 2008.)

“It was the highest rated MMA show on the network to date,” stated Hershman. “We’re obviously in a much smaller universe than Spike or the broadcast networks with 17 million homes, so the big apples to apples comparison for us is that our rating was a 2.1 and Spike’s was a 1.5 and that’s a victory in my book.”

Hershman said Showtime is very satisfied with Strikeforce, which replaced the now defunct EliteXC and ShoXC brands on the network last April.

“We’re three events in with Strikeforce and I think we’ve made amazing progress that we’re even in this conversation about UFC and counter-programming and all that silliness,” remarked Hershman. “They have a 100-event head start on us and I think that we’re doing pretty damn well.”

Though the women proved a ratings bonanza for Showtime on Saturday, the next challenge will be promoting Cyborg. Aside from Cyborg not being Carano, a fighter they have hyped incessantly going back to their relationship with Elite XC, Strikeforce’s new female champion does not speak English, which could make her a harder sell in North America.

Hershman said Cyborg is open to working on her English skills and that she has plenty of positives to exploit.

“Cris Cyborg is just an exciting, dynamic, ferocious fighter and I think we are going to market her that way,” said the Showtime VP. “Who is going to beat this woman? She’s just incredible. There is talent out there who want to try and are prepared to try and probably have some good shots, but this is going to be a long run, I think, for Cris Cyborg.”

It could also be a long run for MMA on Showtime, judging from the channel’s increasing subscription numbers. Obviously, not all of the new subscribers cough up their monthly fee because of MMA, but the influx of new paid viewers fall heavily in the young demographic that has been the lifeblood of the sport’s meteoric rise.

“If you want to track back to February ‘07 it’s probably about two, two-and-a-half million subscriber growth,” boasted Hershman. “That is unprecedented in premium television in the last few years. Most of our new subscribers coming onto Showtime are 18 to 34, so mixed martial arts is a perfect entrée for them to the network, it allows us to reach this younger demographic with programming they want and we’re growing.”

In addition, No. 1-ranked heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko has signed on to compete for Strikeforce and will be making his Showtime debut sometime this fall, according to Hershman.

Since the signing has been announced, the top heavyweight’s new partners have been defending the signing ad nauseam. With speculation swirling that the Fedor deal could be a financial handcuff for Strikeforce, like many believe it was for now out-of-business Affliction Entertainment, Hershman was eager to quell concerns.

“Let me put everything to rest here -- the Fedor deal is entirely manageable, it will be very, very workable for everyone including Fedor,” he said. “He is very well taken care of, but it’s a very responsible deal -- no one’s going out of business because of it. It’s all silliness, and I’ll tell you, if the UFC is good at anything, they are good at spreading a lot of nonsense.”

Hershman was less impressed with another Strikeforce star -- mainstay Nick Diaz. Diaz was slated to face Jay Hieron for the newly minted welterweight title, until he skipped a mandatory California State Athletic Commission pre-fight drug screening a week before the scheduled bout. Hershman had some pointed comments for the cult hero, who is one of the more marketable assets in the Strikeforce stable.

“I’m incredibly disappointed because I’m one of his biggest fans going into this, wanting to see him fight,” said Hershman of Diaz. “I love his fighting style, I love his attitude, I think he is a tremendous talent and to have the fight upended, at such a late date, over [the drug test] situation was really regrettable to me.

“The big issue for me is we spend a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of energy marketing these shows and supporting and building our fighters and Strikeforce as a brand and the bottom line is we just ask our athletes to be reliable,” continued Hershman. “Injuries happen, sure, but there are a lot of things inside your control that you have to take care of as a professional athlete. So, we’ve got to make sure Nick understands that before we can go back and invest everything we are going to invest in him. I’m sure we’ll square it away.”
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