December will close out the first official year of the UFC's lengthy contract with FOX, a stretch marked by change and growing pains, along with a few notable successes. The deal was ushered in by a bonus show last November, a heavyweight championship match-up that drew a peak of 8.8 million viewers. That's a number that hasn't been reached since.
But according to FOX Sports media group president Eric Shanks, the success of the deal is not all about the numbers. At least not yet. The network bought into the MMA business with an eye towards the future, and with FOX investing more heavily in sports programming while positioning itself as a more formidable opponent for ESPN, the UFC investment could be one that pays its key dividends long into the future.
That hasn't stopped both sides from tinkering. Adjustments to UFC/FOX programming have already been made. The Ultimate Fighter went from a live format back to taped, where it could better control the storytelling aspect of the series, and in 2013, it is certain to change nights. UFC on FOX events have increased in quality, with title matches scheduled as the main event on the next two cards. The network has also decided to put UFC on FOX fight prelims on FX, giving it a wider audience than the smaller FUEL network, with the hope of funneling a larger viewership to the main card. And it has continued its "Road to the Octagon" preview shows, which during the fall, air immediately after NFL football, making for a powerful lead-in.
The belief is that changes will result in better ratings, but that's the short view. The long view is that the UFC becomes destination programming to rival other major sports properties like the NFL and Major League Baseball.
According to Shanks, year one was mostly about growing the advertiser base for a sport that had only a short and spotty track record on network television. That's been a successful initiative, with the network signing more than 100 major advertisers, he said.
"This is exactly where we thought we would be, if not ahead," he said on Tuesday. "Some of the things we’re talking about with Dana [White] and Lorenzo [Fertitta] … this relationship is going to look different over the next 2-3 years, and it's only going to get bigger because you're going to get much more economic support from the advertiser base behind it. When that happens, this thing is going to be one of the top sports in the U.S. on television."
There is still work to be done. After UFC on FOX 1 averaged 5.7 million viewers for its one-hour broadcast, numbers have dipped. The second edition averaged 4.7 million, the third drew 2.42 million and the fourth drew 2.44 million. In countering those raw numbers, FOX has pointed out that demographic ratings have been strong. In addition, peak numbers for main events are often well past the average rating.
Shanks said that when it comes to ratings, the UFC already compares favorably to college football's top 10 weekend games, many of which do under a 1.5 rating. FOX has also been wowed by the UFC's performance on FUEL, helping the cable channel to 10 straight months of growth as anchor programming. According to Nielsen Media Research, FUEL is the fastest growing ad-supported cable network in year-over-year growth for 2012, with primetime viewership up 177 percent.
The relationship between the two sides could be further strengthened by the expected launch of FOX's all-sports cable network, a venture for now referred to as FOX Sports 1. Industry reports, including a Monday story by Sports Business Journal, have pegged the channel for an August 2013 launch date. According to that report, UFC programming would be featured on the channel alongside MLB, college football and basketball, NASCAR and soccer as FOX positions it to challenge the long-held dominance of ESPN.
Shanks would not specifically comment on the channel's likelihood, but in general comments about the possibility, he offered a strong vote of confidence for the UFC.
"We have a lot of great network properties, but regardless of what individual channels are called, the plans are, and we've talked to Dana and Lorenzo while we were setting up the deal, the UFC is going to play a huge role both on the broadcast network and national cable with FOX and FOX Sports going forward. No matter what channel configurations look like within the FOX Sports media group, UFC is going to play a bigger and bigger role as time goes on."
All this as the UFC and FOX prepare to fend off the challenge of upstart promotion Bellator, which will slide into the UFC's former home on Spike in January 2013.
As far as the UFC's concerned, it's game on, as the broadcast partners with like-minded philosophies look past the numbers and into the future.
"As the UFC as a company continues to grow, we continue to try new things and do new things, and FOX media group is exactly the same," White said. "I’ve been in the television business for 13 years and I’m going to be honest like I always am. There’s a lot of people in this business I can’t stand, I can’t stomach. It’s hard to do business with a lot of these guys. We’ve found the perfect partners. We love the relationship with these guys. We love this company, and like I’ve said, this is a group of guys we want to be with forever."