The seven-plus year relationship with UFC and FOX ended last Saturday with the prelims of UFC 232.
The UFC called attention to it two weeks earlier, on the Dec. 15 FOX show, with video of UFC fighters and officials thanking FOX. The FOX network paid the UFC from $90 million to about $160 million in escalating figures over the course of the deal to provide live shows on FOX, FX, FS 1, FS 2 and FXX.
While the UFC was actually doing bigger consistent numbers on Spike from 2005 to 2011, since the UFC was the most focused programming on that station, the FOX deal was huge at the time in other ways. The money was in a different league, as UFC was making about $35 million annually from Spike. The UFC was also the flagship programming that kick-started FS 1, which started as FOX’s attempt to rival the success of ESPN. Being on a more prestigious platform gave UFC more credibility as a legitimate sport, as non-MMA media coverage increased greatly.
It was also a catalyst for other deals, making UFC financially stronger nearly ever year, even if the television ratings themselves fell, particularly after a big 2015 and 2016.
As it turned out, the first event of the deal was the biggest, but far from the best.
It was Nov. 12, 2011, actually before the deal was supposed to kick in at the start of January 2012 when FOX put on a Saturday night prime time special. It was something the network would do four to five times a year during the seven years of the deal.
Dana White made the call to do one fight - Cain Velasquez defending the heavyweight title against Junior dos Santos. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the motivation. The idea was to give Velasquez, the company’s most popular fighter with the Mexican-American audience, the audience that supported boxing huge, a spot on network television before a different level of audience to become a breakout star.
The belief was that the heavyweight division was the biggest to the public, since historically that had been the case in the era of Muhammad Ali in the 70s and Mike Tyson in the 90s.
As it turned out, Velasquez suffered a knee injury in training and was knocked out in barely one minute. After 40 minutes of hype, the one-hour show contained one minute of fighting. In hindsight, the decision wasn’t the best, since the other fight that could have been on the show, Benson Henderson vs Clay Guida, was one of 2011’s best fights and probably would have created new fans having seen the versatility of fighting and the excitement that MMA brings.
Still, that show averaged 5,675,000 viewers, a number that would have been much higher had the fight gone longer. The fight itself did 9.8 million viewers between FOX and FOX Deportes, by far the largest number of people to ever watch MMA on television in the U.S.
Starting with 10 million viewers for the fight made it seem like the sky was the limit. But in fact, that was the limit. The UFC never approached those numbers again, and now, when beating one million viewers is cause for celebration, it’s almost inconceivable the sport will ever come close to those figures on television again.
UFC programming carried FS 1 in its early days, and FS 2 was even more built around airing constant prior-run content.
The FS 1 record was set with 2,751,000 viewers for the Jan. 18, 2015, where Conor McGregor first established himself as a major draw, in his win over Dennis Siver at UFC Fight Night 59. McGregor would go on to break the previous all-time pay-per-view records on three occasions, with two fights against Nate Diaz and one against Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The pay-per-view prelim record was set on Dec. 12, 2015, with 1,931,000 viewers on the prelims leading into McGregor’s featherweight title win over Jose Aldo.
The highest rated UFC show on Fuel, which later became FS 2, was on March 2, 2013, when 485,000 viewers watched a show headlined by Wanderlei Silva’s win over Brian Stann in one of the most exciting fights held over the seven-year period.
The most-watched pre-fight show was on March 5, 2016, when 767,000 viewers watched the show the night of the first McGregor vs. Nate Diaz fight.