Note: this piece originally appeared credited to my old user name "youngsteve." From here on out I've decided to start going by my real name on here, hence the repost.
It has been oft repeated that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. This may be true when it comes to body building or attempts to quit smoking, but in the case of the UFC's The Ultimate Fighter franchise I would favor an inversion of this well-worn trope: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results every time. This is just what the UFC have been doing with TUF for a number of years now and the resultant diminishing returns are getting harder to ignore with each passing episode.
If UFC officials weren't hitting the panic button after the premiere of season 16 of TUF came in as the lowest rated debut in series history at 947,000 viewers, they certainly must have been after last Friday's episode came in at a paltry 775,000. Not to put too fine a point on it but that's a very, very bad number.
What makes the rating even scarier is that the third episode of TUF season 12 drew 1.8 million viewers on September 29th, 2010. That's a 43% drop in viewership over a two year period. Even if Dana White downplays these abysmal numbers publicly and points to their relative strength in the key males 18-35 demographic, he and other UFC officials have to be nervous. Last Friday's rating may be a portent of even worse numbers to come as the lackluster season progresses.
The manifold reasons for this precipitous drop in viewership over the past couple years have been well covered - from the less than ideal Friday night time slot FX has saddled the UFC with to a lack of quality fighters - but perhaps no criticism of TUF rings truer and more succinctly sums up why fans have abandoned the show like rats fleeing a sinking ship than this: we've seen it all before.
By now any MMA fan with two brain cells to rub together knows what he or she is getting with a season of TUF: a premiere featuring 32 mostly unknown fighters competing in a series of rapid fire fights, an obligatory pep talk/browbeating from White, the "dramatic" team picking scene, fighters going stir crazy within the house, puerile and uninspired pranks, alcohol fueled confrontations, a coaches' challenge only slightly more contrived than the confrontations staged to sell the coaches' fight at the end of the season, and every week a single fight held in an empty gym with only the sounds of each fighter's respective corner barking instruction to serve as commentary. Season after season, that's it. Watching TUF is like Groundhog Day, only far less entertaining.
So what can be done to right this sinking ship? It may sound pessimistic, but I'm inclined to believe the only honest answer here is, "nothing." At this point TUF is like a barely seaworthy boat with a ramshakle motor dependent on an improvised arrangement of paper clips and with nothing but duct tape and gum wrappers patching innumerable holes in the deck. No amount of retooling is going to address the fundamental structural deficiencies at play here. After sixteen seasons the concept of watching unknown fighters vie for a million dollar contract and a cut glass trophy has worn thinner than Joe Rogan's hair.
That's not to say there aren't some repairs that could at least make the show tolerable again for a few seasons. Here are a few ideas to help breathe new life into a very tired concept.
1) The first co-ed Ultimate Fighter
Dana White has mentioned that he would be open to the idea of an all female series of TUF featuring Strikeforce Women's Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey coaching against Cris Cyborg. This sounds like a fresh enough idea on its own, but I'm not certain that the same unenlightened MMA fans who booed the inaugural UFC Flyweight Title fight a few weeks back are ready to tune into a show featuring exclusively female fighters. The solution? Put eight women and eight men in the house together. Throw alcohol and the usual ennui that accompanies life in the house into the equation and some Jersey Shore style hookups and dust ups would appear to be a foregone conclusion.
Purists might scoff at the idea, but I see a lot of potential positives. For one, it would give the prefight reality show drama a much needed makeover. A cast of female fighters would also likely help draw female viewers, which is never a bad thing. Perhaps most importantly if cast correctly it would give exposure to a generation of female stars much the same way earlier seasons of TUF did for male fighters.
2) TUF Allstars
This one might be a little out there, but it would definitely make for some memorable TV if the UFC could figure out a way to make it work. The idea is similar to one previously employed by shows like The Real World and Survivor: take popular cast members from the past and put them in the house together. C'mon, tell me you wouldn't want to see what would happen if Chris Leban was under the same roof as Josh Koscheck again for six weeks? Or how about watching Nick Diaz and Diego Sanchez try to out mean mug one another? It might be cheap nostalgia but it beats watching the Julian Lanes of the world put containers of baking soda on top of doorways and waiting for unsuspecting members of the opposing team to walk under them.
There would be a number of challenges to putting a show like this together, not the least of which is providing a proper incentive for established fighters to put themselves through the grueling TUF experience again. Paying them per the terms of their regular contract for each fight in addition to guaranteeing the victors of the tournament a title shot might be a good start though.
3) Scrap the reality show and feature a tournament format
One of the major problems with TUF is that the reality show aspect of the show is beyond played out. One remedy for this might be to implement a tournament format similar to Bellator's. Rather than pitting mostly unknowns who weren't good enough to land fights on UFC prelims against one another, encourage fighters with UFC undercard experience who are looking to break through to the next level a shot to enter the tournament as well as top unsigned talent. Get rid of the million dollar contract gimmick and instead have fighters compete for a substantial payday, say $250,000 or so, in addition to a fight against a name contender after they rest up from the grind of the tournament. Build each fight up as a big deal using prefight promos and have the announcers - yes Jon Anik and Kenny Florian would be announcing these shows - do their best to sell viewers on the significance of each fight. I dunno about you, but I'd much rather watch this than the paint by numbers antics of another poor man's Junie Browning.
Of these three ideas I see this as the only potential long term solution. The problems endemic to the current TUF format are so deep seated that nothing short of a complete overhaul will suffice.
I'll be the first to admit that none of these ideas are perfect, but trying something new is preferable to recycling the proven failure for formula that gets trotted out season after season. With ratings plummeting to record lows it's time for the UFC to wake up and realize that producing the same failing series over and over again and expecting the success it once had in the past is nothing short of insanity.