When Dana White a few months back talked about how if the ratings for Ultimate Fighter weren't good this season, that FX had promised to move it to a better night, a lot of people were skeptical.
After all, networks rarely move aging shows with consistently declining ratings to a better and more competitive night. But the announcement at Wednesday's UFC conference call by Chuck Saftler, the Executive Vice President at FX, that Ultimate Fighter starting with its next season will be moving to a weeknight was exactly that.
The call was to announce Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as coaches for season 17 of the show. The show, which will air from January through April, won't be airing on Friday nights. No night was specified, although there have been rumors in recent days that it would be moved to Tuesdays.
And while people are used to trash talking among fighters, and White letting words fly about competition, it's not every day you hear a TV executive as the one intimating threats against a rival.
"The show is going to move off Friday nights," he said. "I can't confirm the day right now, but it's definitely moving off of Friday. It's definitely moving to a weekday. There will be an announcement on that somewhere in the next 30 to 45 days. But I will say that Spike should watch their ass."
Part of the reason nobody is etching in stone when the show will air is because of competition with Spike, which loses its rights to air old UFC tapes at the end of the year. Spike has also not committed as to when its live Bellator events, as well as what is expected to be a second prime time show, a Bellator reality show. The weekly fights will be starting in January.
The strategic games between the two networks up the stakes quite a bit in an expected turf war for the MMA audience.
But the change to a higher-rated weeknight also puts more pressure on The Ultimate Fighter to deliver numbers.
The show was doing record low numbers, partially due to Friday being a terrible night for a show that relies so heavily on Males 18-34 for a large percentage of its audience. But for FX on a weeknight, the show will have to deliver a significantly larger audience than it is getting now or become a liability in FX's battle to remain a top-rated cable network
FX averages about 1.3 million viewers in prime time, putting it in a constant dog fight to be among the top 10 networks on cable. Weeknight prime time is the key to the network's success and you don't want programming on those nights that will drag down the average.
With Jones and Sonnen announced as coaches, on paper the company has put forth its strongest possible coaching dynamic. Jones is the company's best young fighter, but is also a polarizing personality. If he's controversial, that's often good for ratings. If people are turned off by him and don't want to see him, that wouldn't be good. But generally speaking, stars who are disliked usually fall into the former camp.
Sonnen is the company's media darling, someone who always has something to say that gets people talking, whether it always makes sense or not. But that's the kind of person who often thrives in a reality TV atmosphere, and after the estimated 925,000 pay-per-view buys pulled in July for his fight with Silva, even his detractors can no longer claim his methodology of promoting fights doesn't work.
But there's one thing learned from past seasons is that nothing is for sure.
In 2011, when Brock Lesnar and Junior Dos Santos were named coaches of season 13, thoughts of big ratings were dangling in people's heads. Lesnar was the company's most talked about fighter, and due to his more mainstream name from both pro wrestling and his UFC marketing success, when his old fights aired on television, ratings were up. His pay-per-views drew the biggest numbers. To the masses, he was, at the time, the company's most talked about fighter.
Yet his season of Ultimate Fighter was a disappointment, doing the lowest numbers up to that point in the history of the show. Some chalked it up at the time that it was just a fading show and by that point it didn't matter who coached. But season 14, with Jason "Mayhem" Miller and Michael Bisping coaching, having more of a personal rivalry, reversed that trend, showing that for whatever reason, people didn't want to watch Lesnar coach for three months.
While not outright saying it, Safter seemed to hint one of the issues facing the show on FX so far this year was viewer confusion. Many times on Fridays, Spike would air old episodes of Ultimate Fighter, which featured early fights of people who became major stars, head-to-head with the current episodes on FX. While the Spike shows never did big numbers, perhaps they muddied the waters somewhat. But the new shows on FX didn't pull any better numbers when Spike aired other programming.
"Spike clearly has been dogging us for most of this year with the launch of the two seasons of The Ultimate Fighter by trying to create viewer confusion and scheduling old episodes against The Ultimate Fighter, and trying to pass them off as new content," Safter said. "They'll be out of the UFC game effective in January. They're going to try and launch a new product, they're going to try and launch their own reality show that competes with The Ultimate Fighter, or does a very similar thing, with their Bellator product. We watched how they behaved, and we're well aware of their behavior and how they've acted competitively."
Safter didn't outright threaten to turn the tables on Spike by scheduling UFC programming head-to-head with Spike's launching of Bellator's live shows or its reality show. He intimated that what Spike does will play a part in their decisions. But he wouldn't go so far as to say they will counter-program head-to-head.
"I'm not ready to commit to that, but we're certainly going to be watching how they schedule, what they schedule and where they schedule," said Safter.
The show, which starts taping over a six-week period running from Oct. 29 through the second week of December, will lead to Jones vs. Sonnen on pay-per-view on April 27. While not location is etched in stone, Dana White said they are right now looking at holding the event in New Jersey.