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UFC’s ESPN debut sets Fight Night viewership record

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UFC Fight Night Cejudo v Dillashaw Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The UFC prelims on ESPN on Saturday, at least partially due to a fortunate time slot, were the most-watched prelims for a Fight Night in history.

The four-fight show, headlined by Donald Cerrone vs. Alexander Hernandez, the company’s debut on its new station, drew 1,956,000 viewers.

One of the keys to the record number was it directly followed the Duke vs. Virginia college basketball game that did 3,764,000 viewers, and even out of prime time, was the third-most watched television show in the country.

The UFC fights, which aired from 8:13 to 10 p.m., beat everything in its time slot on prime time television except the NBA on ABC in the 18-34 and 18-49 demos, both overall and males.

The previous record for Fight Night prelims was set on January 17, 2016, with 1,757,000 viewers for prelims on FS 1 prior to a televised main card headlined by Dominick Cruz vs. T.J. Dillashaw.

The all-time record for any type of prelims was set on Feb. 5, 2011, on Spike, when one hour of prelims before the UFC 126 pay-per-view show, a card headlined by Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort, did 2 million viewers. It should be noted that the homes that had Spike in 2011 was significantly higher than the number of homes that get ESPN in 2019 so from a household ratings standpoint this would be the record-setter. Cerrone vs. Paul Kelly was the prelims headliner on that show.

It’s obviously a great start for the relationship, which also included 568,000 new subscribers to ESPN+ on Jan. 18-19 combined, largely for the main card that night. But it’s probably not a fair gauge of how UFC will generally do on the station because of the boost from the lead-in.

As far as audiences differences went, Fight Night retained 66 percent of women 18-49, 69 percent of males 18-49, 59 percent of women 12-34 and 64 percent of males 12-34 from the basketball game lead-in. The big difference is in the over-50 audience, where only 38 percent of the viewership from basketball was retained.