When the UFC was first purchased by the current ownership group, and it set its eyes on becoming a worldwide promotion, Dana White on several occasions has talked about how the United Kingdom was one of the first places targeted.
After more than a dozen years, the market has had its frustrations. One of them hasn't been attracting a rabid hardcore fan base, as live shows have generally been very successful. This coming Saturday's show, headlined by Alexander Gustafsson vs. Jimi Manuwa, held at the O2 Arena in London was almost sold out, with about 14,000 paid and nearly $2 million gate, as of two weeks ago. Those are impressive figures for a show with Michael Johnson vs. Melvin Guillard as the No. 2 fight.
But the television situation has been difficult to navigate, and due to that, building MMA as a major sport or as part of the culture has been a slow process.
There are a few issues at stake. One is there are so few free-to-air stations, with most being part of subscription packages, which are fine for serving an existing fan base, but due to limitations of exposure, not so great at capturing new fans. Another is most UFC major events from North America air in the middle of the night in Europe. Again, the most ardent UFC fans, and fans of American sports in general, like boxing, are used to that. But it's difficult to expand the fan base.
There has also been the lack of a British world champion. Michael Bisping, Dan Hardy and Tom "Kong" Watson, the best known of the UFC fighters, all have native popularity, but there has never been that superstar fighter that breaks through like Georges St-Pierre in Canada or Anderson Silva in Brazil.
That's why UFC's new television deal in the market is so significant. Besides airing on BT Sports, the home of all UFC live events, Saturday's show will air from 9-11 p.m. on Ch. 5, one of the five major free-to-air stations in the country. It would be equivalent in some ways to the FOX deal in the U.S. Ch. 5 is the equivalent of a network station in the U.S., although it is No. 5 in the marketplace.
That means, instead of an audience measured in tens of thousands, there could be a million or more viewers, the most any UFC event in history has ever garnered in that part of the world. The station averages 1 million viewers in that time slot and there have been boxing matches with local heavyweight Tyson Fury that have doubled that number.
Saturday's show kicks off a new deal with the station that will air six shows in prime time in 2014, all live. The plan is to air shows in Europe, as well as the Middle East, as part of the deal. The shows will feature the new announcing team of John Gooden, who came from Cage Warriors, along with soccer host Andy Friedlander and U.K. MMA star Dan Hardy.
According to David Allen of the UFC, BT Sports, as part of its contract, will air the entire event live. Both channels will have the same fight feed, but each channel have their own separate in-studio coverage. The show will also be available live on Fight Pass, just as it is available in the U.S.