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What Does Future Hold for Strikeforce, MMA on Network TV?

In retrospect, it was probably a poor choice of words.

"Sometimes these things happen in MMA," said CBS play-by-play man Gus Johnson.

By "these things," he apparently meant post-fight brawls like the one that had just erupted in the cage following Strikeforce's main event bout between Jake Shields and Dan Henderson. If only Johnson had left off the "in MMA" part, or better yet, not tried to dismiss a complete breakdown of good sense with a flippant remark that suggested we were looking at people who weren't responsible for their own actions, maybe it wouldn't have seemed so bad.

As it was, there were likely many viewers checking out MMA on CBS for the first or second or even third time who saw the melee, heard that remark, and decided that yes, this kind of thing does just happen sometimes in this crazy sport.

After a finish like that, and at the end of a slightly boring night of fights, it's hard not to wonder what the future holds for Strikeforce and for MMA on network TV in general.

But the brawl itself is not a dealbreaker. The brawl is a regrettable footnote. The brawl, while embarrassing, might have even been the highlight for viewers of a certain type. No, the real bad news is the ratings.

An average of 2.63 million people watched Strikeforce on CBS, down from an average of 3.79 million in the same time slot for Strikeforce's November effort featuring the Fedor Emelianenko vs. Brett Rogers main event (though the actual Emelianenko-Rogers fight, which went over the allotted time, broke four million viewers).

A network will live with a little post-fight controversy if it means people are watching. But declining ratings? That's the unforgivable sin. That's what doomed Ashton Kutcher's "Game Show In My Head." If an idea that solid can be torpedoed by poor ratings, then nothing is sacred.

More than anything, Strikeforce was hurt on Saturday by a lack of big-name fighters (read: Fedor and/or Gina Carano) that resonate with the casual viewer. But if Strikeforce can't post strong ratings for a card that features three champions and a prominent recent free-agent acquisition in the form of Henderson, CBS might well be wondering if these low ratings aren't a harbinger of things to come.

With Carano off making movies and Emelianenko proving a little difficult to work with lately, Strikeforce can't count on having either available when it really needs them. And if Strikeforce loses its deal with CBS, what will that mean for its relationships with Carano and Emelianenko?

We know Emelianenko's crew at M-1 Global wasn't happy with the exposure they received on network TV in the fall. Would they even bother showing up to a fight on premium cable these days? Or would they insist on "renegotiating" again?

But even if CBS gets skittish and decides to get out of the Strikeforce business, it doesn't necessarily mean we'll never see MMA on network TV again. Maybe it just means some expectations will have to change, particularly expectations with regards to what will bring in a vast audience. Three titles up for grabs is nice, but if fans aren't sufficiently enamored with the champs or the challengers, the hunk of leather and gold they're fighting over isn't a guaranteed ratings magnet.

Maybe it also means that one of the networks will finally get serious about courting the UFC, which has the brand recognition and fighter roster that Strikeforce doesn't. It should help that incidents like the one that marred Strikeforce's event in Nashville – you know, the kind that Gus Johnson would have us believe are symptomatic of MMA as a sport? That stuff doesn't happen in the UFC.

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