clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

After Plenty of False Starts, UFC Ready for Primetime Network Debut

The UFC's head man, as always, has plenty on his plate. He recently completed an exhausting series of four events in four weeks, the first such stretch in UFC history. It won't take long to duplicate. Another four-week, four-event stretch begins on October 29. In between, he's flying around the world for press conferences, meeting with fighters, managers and agents, and putting out the everyday fires that come along with trying to accomplish so much in so little time.

When you ask Dana White about any of this stuff, it seems almost mundane for him. He shows the same passion for his product, but after a decade in the trenches, there is a sense of routine to it all.

After years as a micro-manager -- White is the first to admit he hates giving up control -- he has built a staff that he trusts, leaving him more time to focus on big picture issues. And that's a good thing, because the scope of what's in front of him is a dizzying expanse, the one world White has yet to conquer. If you were to say he is obsessed by his new primetime network platform, he might not disagree.

"The only thing I care about right now is this first FOX fight on November 12," White told MMA Fighting in an exclusive interview. "We've been on cable television with Spike since 2005, and that was huge for us, but this is a whole other game. A whole other level. This is the time when everything changes."

While 2005 is widely regarded as the first mainstream television breakthrough for the UFC, there was actually an opportunity before that.

In 2002, White thought he was ready. Two years into Zuffa's ownership of the UFC, the promotion had just booked two events when Fox Sports Net agreed to air one fight in June during a series of summer specials. There was only one problem. The first event White booked was in early May, and the results would be known far in advance of the airing. And the second event was in July, too late. So White booked a third event in June, solely for the opportunity to air on Fox Sports. The event became known as UFC 37.5, and it marked the first time in company history promoting three events in three months.

The show took place on a Saturday afternoon at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and the plan was for Fox to air one full fight on Tuesday, three days later. While the main event pitted Chuck Liddell against Vitor Belfort, the UFC still planned to air the show on pay-per-view at a later date and could not give that fight away for free. So instead, UFC and Fox Sports Net decided on featuring Robbie Lawler vs. Steve Berger.

The ensuing broadcast would be a huge success for the UFC, which saw its biggest audience ever. Mainstream legitimacy seemed around the corner. And then? Nothing.

At the time, it was a monumental letdown for White and the Fertitta ownership group, who thought they were about to begin a fruitful relationship.

"It was like, f---, we should've got that deal then," he said. "It should've happened. But it wasn't time. It didn't happen because it wasn't time. We weren't ready for that. We're ready now. Now we're ready, all our ducks are in a row. We're the best and what we do, and now we're going to go out there and f------ nail this in the next two years. But this next year is real important."

For White and UFC senior VP of production and operations Craig Borsari, that has meant constant contact with FOX executives. It's meant regular, daily phone calls, and frequent flier miles to Los Angeles. White said either he or Borsari -- sometimes both -- has traveled to L.A. at least once a week every week since signing the new deal in August.

"Thank God it's not New York," White said.

If that seems like a lot of work for one, one-hour show (the Nov. 12 FOX TV offering will feature only one fight: a heavyweight championship match pitting Cain Velasquez against Junior dos Santos), White said it's extremely significant because the first show will be lay the groundwork for the entire seven-year relationship to follow. The Nov. 12 show is not officially part of the announced deal, which goes into effect on January 1. It's actually a bonus event worked out between the companies, and White feels it necessary to make that first network impression an indelible one.

"They're not like any other network to deal with," White said. "They don't operate like any other networks do. They're so badass, it's really crazy. They do everything top-notch, first-class. They're innovative, they take risks. Being with these guys -- and I'm not complaining -- I just don't know how the f--- we didn't do this sooner. It's crazy.

"FOX revolutionized football, NASCAR and all these other sports," he continued. "[FOX Sports chairman and CEO] David Hill has literally revolutionized how sports is filmed and broadcast. They have a lot of ideas for us, too, and I'm open to them."

White is so focused on UFC on FOX 1 that many questions relating to surrounding issues can not yet be answered. Where will the rest of the card be broadcast? White doesn't know. Will subsequent network shows also be just one hour? That's still to be determined. What kind of viewership numbers are expected? Though FOX sold out its advertising allotment, no one offers a guess for that, either.

Recently, White seemed to tip his hand on the last question. While discussing Spike counter-programming UFC on FOX 1 with a special "UFC Unleashed" featuring Velasquez and dos Santos, he told MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani, "I hope I pull 10 million on FOX and 2 million on Spike. Believe me, I'll be a happy camper that next day.

But in a subsequent interview with MMA Fighting, White said that number was just off the top of his head.

"I have no idea what the possibilities are on a Saturday night for free TV," he said. "FOX hasn't given us any expectations or any number that they expect. I'm going to be happy no matter what. The way I look at this first FOX fight, we're introducing the sport to everybody. I don't know what that number's going to be, but whatever it is, we're going to build off that. When we did our last Fight Night in New Orleans, 1.8 million people tuned in on Spike. How many people are going to tune in on FOX? I don't know the answer, and neither do they. This thing is an experiment."

For both sides, it's an expensive experiment. FOX will be paying a reported $700 million over seven years, with rights fees starting lower than the average $100 million at the beginning and escalating each year. Meanwhile, the UFC is expected to lose money on the first show, with broadcast fees not likely to make up for the revenue that would have come from a pay-per-view offering.

In the long run, though, the UFC has the cash coffers to withstand a loss-leader on such a high-profile platform. The upside is without question. FOX's multi-channel deal with the UFC will eventually put the promotion not only on FOX, but also on FX, which finished in the top five for cable ratings in the most recent week. In addition, UFC will become staple programming on FUEL, with the possibility of event pre- and post-shows, live undercards and foreign versions of The Ultimate Fighter.

For the last few years, even as pay-per-view business exploded and the sport surpassed boxing and professional wrestling in revenue, White has always contended that the UFC and mixed martial arts had yet to hit mainstream. To get there, he's always said he needed network TV. The time is fast arriving.

It's going to be a challenge for all of Zuffa, and it will certainly take its personal toll on White. The next year, he says, is going to "beat the living s--- out of me." The travel, the expanded schedule, the stress, it's all just going to continue to increase. But after waiting 10 years for this opportunity, there's no hesitation about what's to come. In the words of octagon announcer Bruce Buffer, it's time.

"Next year, 2012, is going to be the biggest year for mixed martial arts," he said. "It's the one that's going to change everything. I know what I need to do. We're going to reach people who would have never watched us in a million years. We're going to kick it off and get a lot of buzz and a lot of hype, and we're going to grow off of it. We have a great partner. We're ready. Now we're going to take it to a whole other level."