It wasn't a coincidence that news broke about UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen being selected as the next coaches of The Ultimate Fighter just four days after the struggling franchise pulled in a series low 624,000 viewers. Despite Dana White's bluster some weeks back that TUF was "a home run" for FX in the males 18-34 demographic, it's obvious the show is in serious trouble.
How much trouble? Well, for one thing it was down 151,000 viewers from the prior series low which brought in just 775,000 viewers in week three. What's even scarier if you're the UFC is that week five of the previous season of TUF drew what was then a franchise low of 947,000 viewers. That's a 34% decrease in viewership from what was considered an abysmal rating back in April. Given that the current season is only at week five and ratings have been continually trending downward it's entirely possible viewership could plummet even further. This isn't good news for a company that considers TUF its flagship series.
The UFC is banking on the dynamic between the controversial Jones and the equally polarizing Sonnen breathing new life into a show that has grown unquestionably long in the tooth. In theory it sounds like a great idea. Sonnen has a proven track record of being able to drum up interest in his fights with his pro-wrestling style interviews and Jones is a big star who fans feel like they don't know very well thanks to what they perceive as his manufactured persona. The prospect of seeing the brash Sonnen needling the overly-sensitive Jones for weeks on end sounds like a compelling concept.
There's only one problem though. At this point the idea of 16 unknown fighters living in a house together and vying for a UFC contract is anything but compelling.
Even if Jones and Sonnen can help the show rebound from its current ratings slump, what does the UFC do for subsequent seasons? Go back to the same formula that has been failing for years? The fundamental problems underlying the decline in ratings for TUF run far deeper than the failure of current coaches Roy Nelson and Shane Carwin to capture viewers' interest.
When TUF debuted seven years ago the concept of seeing a fight on TV every week was incredibly fresh. Now thanks to regular live cards on FOX, FX, and FUEL fighting is no longer a novelty. What's the draw for a single fight a week between unknowns when we can see entire cards featuring established talent for free on a regular basis?
That touches upon another critical problem with the TUF concept. With the UFC needing warm bodies to fill out its ever expanding list of shows, the kind of prospects who once came up the ranks on TUF now often skip that step and make their UFC debuts on undercards. One of the selling points of early seasons was seeing future stars develop but in recent years TUF winners have primarily been fighters with little upside. It's hard to get invested in watching a twelve week reality show tournament if you suspect the winner is going to be stuck on prelims for the rest of his career.
The reality show format is perhaps the stalest aspect of the show. At this point we've seen everything fighters locked in a house together for six weeks can possibly do multiple times over. Watching a faded xerox of Chris Leban throw a mattress into a swimming pool or punch a door in frustration might be entertaining the first five times you see it, but by the sixteenth time it's duller than a course in accounting.
Still, despite the show's moribundity the UFC haven't given up the ghost. They believe TUF is a valuable vehicle for making new stars, building up big fights between coaches, and helping to grow their brand. This may have been true in 2008 but it's simply not the case anymore.
While Jones and Sonnen are sure to help the show draw better ratings than the current season, there is probably a low ceiling for how well they can do on Friday night given the makeup of the UFC's target demographic. FX moving the show to a different night would undoubtedly help ratings but it still wouldn't address the larger issue that right now TUF is more played out than a checkerboard at a retirement home. The precipitous decline in ratings over the last two seasons shows that the concept of watching unknown fighters living in a house together no longer resonates with viewers.
The choice of Jones and Sonnen as coaches might have been the best quick fix available to the UFC but it does nothing to make the show more viable in the long term. It's like putting new tires on an old junker when the transmission is going out. The car might ride slightly better but it's still going to break down without serious repairs. Sonnen and Jones will likely make season seventeen of TUF a success but don't be surprised if ratings nosedive once again for subsequent seasons. This show has fundamental structural problems that no combination of coaches can fix. The UFC may not have given up on the current TUF formula yet, but it appears viewers already have.