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UFC vs. Bellator head-to-head Saturday night battle looks to split audience

Saturday’s battle with both promotions running concurrently lacks the drawing cards that will bring in a fringe audience.

Amanda Nunes
Amanda Nunes headlines UFC 224 this Saturday.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For the second time this year, MMA has something of a major head-to-head television battle between the UFC and Bellator.

On Saturday, the UFC is running its UFC 224 pay-per-view show from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with Amanda Nunes defending her women’s bantamweight title against Raquel Pennington. Bellator counters with its final first-round match in the eight-man heavyweight title tournament. It features Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader against Muhammed Lawal, with both men moving up from their usual weight class, from the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.

Direct competition between rival promotions is often a good thing for the sport. But it might not be this week.

Usually in these situations, if two companies are booking major shows, it creates talk and interest in MMA for the night, drawing in more viewers to the sport than a usual Saturday night. But if neither group has a hook, something that will draw fringe or casual fans, then the result is splitting the audience, which almost always hurts one side, if not both.

The last night of this type was Jan. 20. The UFC ran in Boston with two title fights, Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou for the heavyweight title and Daniel Cormier vs. Volkan Oezdemir for the light heavyweight title. Bellator countered with two major fights, Chael Sonnen vs. Rampage Jackson in the first match of the Heavyweigt Grand Prix tournament, and Douglas Lima defending the welterweight title against Rory MacDonald, who had long been one of the top contenders in UFC for the welterweight belt.

Given how hot the perception of Ngannou was at the time, as he was coming off one of those knockouts that you’ll never forget in a quick win over Alistair Overeem, the 350,000 buys UFC 220 drew on pay-per-view was less than most expectations.

It’s impossible to say with certainty if Bellator being on free television cost UFC some buys, but that number looks like it did. Bellator’s two big fights that night took place during UFC’s pay-per-view card.

Still, during the head-to-head television hour, from 9-10 p.m. Eastern time, with UFC airing its second hour of prelims and Bellator starting its show, there were about 1,750,000 MMA viewers combined watching between the UFC on FS1 and Bellator on Paramount and CMT. That’s huge number for cable, showing they did a lot more that night than split the usual MMA fan Saturday night audience.

UFC did 909,000 viewers in that hour, while Bellator did 680,000 for that hour on Paramount and about 160,000 on CMT.

Bellator increased to 1,234,000 between the two channels when the Sonnen vs. Jackson fight took place, which went against the UFC pay-per-view. For Bellator in 2018, that’s a strong number, its second best of the year, trailing only the 48 seconds of the Fedor Emelianenko vs. Frank Mir fight on April 28.

There should be a major celebration if either company comes even close to those marks on Saturday.

When it comes to the head-to-head television battle, UFC 224 will have its prelims on FX, as opposed to FS1. FX is a higher rated station, and more of a general entertainment station rather than a pure sports channel. It’s beneficial to UFC to get on the station, because it’s a bigger base audience and because it’ll be seen by people who aren’t regular weekly UFC viewers.

The downside is that this is a very patterned television viewing world. While the hardcore fans can easily watch both events, one live and the other later at their convenience, that’s not a big percentage of the overall viewership. But some people won’t find the UFC on FS1, and won’t look to find it on the unfamiliar station.

The UFC is also not offering anything special in that hour. The two fights scheduled for that 9-10 p.m. Eastern hour are a heavyweight bout with Junior Albini (14-3) vs. Aleksei Oleinik (55-11-1) and a middleweight fight with Cezar Ferreira (12-6) vs. Karl Roberson (6-0). Those names are not going to move numbers on their own, and thus the key to viewing is the interest level of the pay-per-view matches and people making plans for a night of fighting.

Bellator’s head-to-head hour counter looks to be Adam Piccolotti (9-2) vs. Carrington Banks (7-0) and heavyweights Cheick Kongo (27-10-2) vs. Javy Ayala (10-6). Kongo has a degree of name recognition because he’s been around the sport for so many years. But Bellator’s viewership is more based on Bader vs. Lawal and the eight-man tournament. They are probably the two fighters closest to their primes in the field. Both usually fight at light heavyweight, although Lawal is 9-1 as an undersized heavyweight.

But Bader vs. Lawal, with secondary help from Jon Fitch in his Bellator debut against Paul Daley, wouldn’t figure to have the interest level of a Sonnen fight.

The UFC’s pay-per-view is short on big names as well. The best known fighters are the past-their-prime former light heavyweight champions, Lyoto Machida vs. Vitor Belfort, battling at middleweight. Kelvin Gastelum and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza is also a significant middleweight fight, as the winner will be in line for a title bout and the loser will be out of luck.

But pay-per-view is almost always about the main event. Nunes vs. Pennington will probably be considered a victory for the UFC if it doesn’t do the lowest numbers so far this year. Pennington has never headlined, nor has she fought in more than a year. Nunes’ track record violates most of the rules of drawing.

Nunes beat two of the UFC’s biggest name women — Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey, both in the first round — in fights seen by large audiences. Both of those fights were main events on shows that did more than 1 million buys. Nunes vs. Tate was the rare example of a pay-per-view number not drawn by the main event, as Brock Lesnar and Anderson Silva were probably the real draws at UFC 200. But still, Nunes scored a great win on a star fighter before a large audience.

Nunes vs. Rousey was the match that drew in excess of 1.1 million pay-per-view buys. Nunes was the champion, but she was also very much the B-side of the equation as far as the pay-per-view numbers went. Still, Nunes scored another first-round win.

But Nunes’ next and most recent title defense, at UFC 215 against Valentina Shevchenko, did closer to 100,000 buys. Shevchenko was a very legitimate top contender and a real threat based on their competitive first fight. Plus, Shevchenko had earned her title fight with a win over Holly Holm on the most-watched summer FOX show in history, and followed it up with a decisive win over Julianna Pena on FOX.

Pennington has less name value as the challenger going into the fight than Shevchenko had.

So, as compared to Jan. 20, while two different events airing on separate channels should increase viewers to a higher level than a usual Saturday night of only UFC fights, this weekend looks to be more of a case of splitting up the usual audience than a night when casual fans will hear so much about the sport in the days leading to the event that they will decide to check out one fight card, or both.

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