MMA Roundtable: FOX ratings, weekend fights, Bellator's move, Rousey-Carmouche expectations

USA TODAY Sports

This week's MMA Roundtable is all about expectations: from whether some have been met to if others are a little too lofty. For example, how exactly did UFC on FOX 5 do? We've heard the numbers, but are they good, bad or mediocre? Also, what will Bellator's move to Thursday nights on Spike do to help their ratings, which weekend fight do we think will most live up to the hype, and will Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche draw a crowd to their UFC main event?

To discuss it all, my colleague Dave Doyle joined me around the ol' Roundtable.

1. Put the UFC on FOX 5 rating in baseball terms: strikeout, single, double, triple, home run? And why?

Doyle: It's a standup double, the type where the runner rounds second and checks the cutoff man before deciding against trying to stretch it into a triple. Look, the UFC isn't likely to top the rankings of UFC on FOX 1 anytime soon, unless something entirely out of the ordinary pops up. Dos Santos vs. Velasquez was a heavily hyped debut show and a heavyweight title fight. Comparing ratings to the first show is sort of moot. Likewise, chances are strong we'll never see another number as bad as UFC on FOX 4, unless they're again used as filler programming head-to-head with the Olympics.

The UFC did a good job walking the fine line this time: A title fight in the main event and names like B.J. Penn who are recognizable to the casual fans. But they didn't give away a big PPV draw of a fight in order to do so. FOX got it right too, by giving the show ample promotion time on other FOX sporting events (the show was even plugged regularly in Los Angeles during Clippers broadcasts, which leads me to believe they did the same in Fox Sports Net local markets around the country) and in producing the excellent "Road to the Octagon" special. If the UFC keeps producing the right type of show for network TV and FOX continues to work hard on promoting the show, then UFC on FOX shows should continue to hit their target demos the way UFC on FOX 5 did.

Chiappetta: I'll go a step further and call it a triple.

For comparison's sake, I looked at the 12 college football games FOX broadcast on Saturday nights this season. According to the numbers recorded by Sports Media Watch, those games drew an average of 3.5 million viewers. UFC on FOX 5 drew 4.4 million, a viewer increase of almost 26 percent. UFC on FOX also draws a more attractive (read: younger) demographic.

I think one thing we don't consider when we look at numbers is how difficult it is to promote one-off events. College football takes place every week of the fall. Sure, that means there are many options to choose from, but as a general rule the networks save the best available games for prime time, so those are the ones that should draw the best. Every week, you know that game is there waiting for you.

For something like UFC on FOX, which only happens four times a year, you have to build an audience from scratch each time, many of whom may not get the message from watching FX or FUEL, and many of whom who are young and like to spend their Saturday nights doing things other than staying home to watch TV.

Now, since I'm comparing the numbers to college football, I should point out that the 4.4 million pales in comparison to the top-rated primetime game of the year, Notre Dame vs. USC, which drew 16.1 million to ABC. But college football is steeped in tradition and has generations of fans, and MMA is still in its infancy as a television sports property. Given its success in a short time, I'll call it a triple.

2. There are two UFC events and a Bellator show this weekend. What single fight most interests you and why?

Chiappetta: For me, this is an easy one: TUF 16 Finale's Jamie Varner vs. Melvin Guillard fight. We all know what these guys like to do, and that's flash leather. It's pretty much a guaranteed barn-burner.

I'm pretty intrigued by UFC on FX 6's Hector Lombard vs. Rousimar Palhares fight, mostly because I don't think it's possible for Lombard to lay eggs two fights in a row, but if Palhares can't get the fight to the ground, the pace might slow considerably. Bellator 84's Richard Hale vs. Alexander Volkov is likely to bring fireworks with it, but neither fighter is particularly high on the heavyweight rankings, which knocks the bout's importance down a peg, even if it is for the vacant heavyweight title.

Varner vs. Guillard is the pick for several reasons. First, it is a perfect matchup of styles. Beyond that, there is something at stake, as neither man wants to fall into a two-fight losing streak. Varner has looked hungry since returning in May, and both of his fights, for better or worse, have been thrill rides. Guillard rarely has a boring match, and is in fact, coming off a Fight of the Night performance for a bout that went all of 76 seconds. Both men are capable of finishing or being finished. Both have decent wrestling backgrounds, and both have powerful striking. Sign me up.

Doyle: I suppose for the sake of variety I should pick a different fight. And I am interested in seeing whether George Sotiropoulos can regain his mojo when he has his first fight in 18 months on Friday (against Ross Pearson); he was on quite a run in 2009-10.

But I’ve got to be honest: I’ve had Varner vs. Guillard circled on my calendar since the night the bout was first announced, and I can’t force myself to pretend I’m more interested in something else. And it’s for all the reasons Mike lists above. These guys are far from perfect fighters. But both Varner and Guillard give their fans value for their time and money every time out, and that’s as fine a compliment you can pay a fighter. Both fighters’ last fights were memorable. Varner’s loss to Joe Lauzon is on the short list of Fight of the Year candidates and Guillard’s loss to Cerrone was as explosive a sub-two-minute fight as you’ll ever see. But since both lost, that will add an extra edge to the fight on top of all other reasons this fight looks good on paper. So yeah, I’m with Mike on this one. Varner vs. Guillard it is.

3. We already knew Bellator was moving to Spike, but they also just announced that in 2013, they would move to Thursdays and open the season with two title fights. How much do you expect viewership to rise with the changes?

Chiappetta: I certainly expect a significant uptick, particularly in the first few weeks of the relationship when it's new and fresh, and new eyeballs are interested in seeing what they have to offer. Don't be surprised to see 500,000+ tune in for the first episode or two, a number that would double the promotion's best historical ratings. Spike has shown itself to be capable of getting the word out about mixed martial arts, and they are heavily invested in doing so with Bellator. They are also following the same formula as they did in the early day of their relationship with the UFC, using pro wrestling as a lead-in.

The opening show is well designed to draw maximum exposure, with Pat Curran and Michael Chandler defending belts. The week afterward will feature "King Mo" Muhammed Lawal. It will be harder to draw as the season goes on because either the people who haven't been watching will be interested in the tournament format, or they won't. But I think Spike understands that they need to find a way to invest fans in their fighters, and they have plans to produce specials that will aim to accomplish that mission. Of course, Spike also has the luxury of replaying events and matches multiple times, which can help familiarize viewers, even if it's one at a time. The move will definitely lead to an early increase in numbers, but keeping the momentum going will be the challenge.

Doyle: There’s no doubt Bellator and Spike have set things up to make the strongest first impression possible. It’s a smart move. Pat Curran and Michael Chandler are two of the most under-appreciated fighters in the sport. Curran and Chandler are their two current champs with the most upside, so it makes sense to have them co-headline the first event. Likewise, holding off on "King Mo" until week two gives them a week to hype their most charismatic fighter.

But then, what happens in week three? Mike’s correct in pinpointing the game plan: Mimic what worked back in 2005. But can history really repeat? Eight years ago, the lead-in was World Wrestling Entertainment, far and away the biggest brand name in the wrestling business. These days, they show wrestling’s secondary promotion. Likewise, back in 2005, there was an untapped market for mixed martial arts on cable television, and the UFC, even if had been more or less out of the mainstream, was still a familiar name. Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz were already names who dwarf the stature of Bellator’s current roster.

The UFC succeeded on Spike in large part because MMA was something new and fresh on basic cable at the time. You can’t say that with Bellator in 2013. I don’t know whether Bellator will ultimately be a success on Spike. They’ve put themselves in position to make their strongest impact over the first two weeks. How the ratings look in weeks three, four, and beyond will be the true test.

4. When push comes to shove, how do you think Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche will do on pay-per-view?

Doyle: My instincts tell me that Rousey's pay-per-view debut is going to be the surprise of the winter MMA schedule. I'm not predicting an Anderson Silva or Georges St-Pierre level buy rate by any means, but I do think it will do above average. This is for several reasons. One is the obvious one, that the UFC's marketing machine is now behind Rousey and women's fighting. Rousey was able to get herself A-list publicity from the likes of ESPN the Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and so on, the sort of spots usually only received by the biggest names in sports. And that was when she was in Strikeforce. Now it's going to ramp up even further. Between the fact Dana White is obviously going all in on this one, and the mainstream media will eventually jump on the novelty of the first women's title fight -- particularly given that it's in February, a dead time in the sports schedule with football over and baseball not started -- I see the type of hype that will cause the sort of fans who pick and choose their pay-per-views to pick this one.

Don't count out Carmouche, either. People in the MMA world already know that she's 1. A Marine who served three tours in Iraq and 2. Lesbian. But there are plenty of big media outlets out there who haven't figured out her compelling life story yet and when they do, Carmouche will get her share of press, too.

Then there's the co-main event. Whether it ends up as Lyoto Machida vs. Dan Henderson, or Machida vs. Alexander Gustafsson, UFC 157 will have a strong top two fights. Put all the circumstances together and UFC 157 becomes an event which stands out in a cluttered event calendar.

Chiappetta: I agree that the show will do fairly well, mostly because it is guaranteed to receive an avalanche of publicity. In a short amount of time, Rousey has proven herself to be a savvy self-promoter, on the same level of a Chael Sonnen. Perhaps even beyond. Beyond what Dave mentioned, Rousey's gotten herself on TMZ, on the cover of Oxygen magazine, on Conan, etc. That's as mainstream as mainstream can be. Now that she's in the UFC, and as the champion no less, the attention is about to hit DEFCON 1 levels. Some of those people watching and reading who don't normally watch MMA are going to like her and to want to tune in and see her ply her trade.

As Dave points out, Carmouche also has a unique story and should receive attention, too. So the sporting world will know about this history-making match, and the rest of the public is likely to hear about it, too. Throw in some solid supporting acts and I think a number near 350,000 is reachable, which would be quite a feat for the women's first time out.

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