The UFC’s new TV deal and its impact

(Note: Upon further review, Conference USA reached its agreement with Fox on January 5th, while the Comcast-NBC merger, which I take as the start point of the wars, wasn’t approved until the 18th. The scoreboard at the bottom of this post counts both MLS and IndyCar.)

This was shaping to be the most critical period, as part of the most pivotal year, in the history of MMA.

UFC’s contract with Spike TV, which carried the sport through its rise from backrooms to the brink of the mainstream, was up for renewal, and all signs were that the UFC would not renew with Spike. The direction it went in now would determine the way the sport took shape now and into the future, as well as set where the cap, if any, was for its future growth. It all depended on Dana White’s vision of the ultimate balance of broadcast, cable, premium, and pay-per-view for the sport going forward.

I couldn’t give a vision of what MMA’s mainstream future might look like without having an expert to tell me what differentiates the economics of fight sports from other sports when it comes to pay-per-view, as well as how boxing’s transition to pay-per-view proceeded. I don’t know to what extent MMA’s mainstream future might involve pay-per-view, or whether the biggest cards would air on broadcast television or PPV, only that boxing has proven it cannot become seen as a mainstream sport with the level of reliance on pay-per-view UFC has now. It needs to have events high-profile enough on broadly viewed television to attract large numbers of people and at the very least promote those PPVs.

Regardless of its current popularity, MMA is in a precarious place in terms of perception. At one point the UFC was apparently in talks to buy Comcast’s struggling G4 network and turn it into a UFC network, and the general perception is that if they can muster enough inventory to fill its hours, they’re best positioned of the entities that haven’t launched a sport-specific network already. But for the moment, the UFC can’t afford to put too much programming on a relatively small specialty network if they want to keep growing the sport and get it to be perceived as mainstream. They need a deal with another entity, and Dana White’s insistence on controlling the presentation has, to this point, held up any deal.

Another reason why this was shaping up to be the most pivotal year in the history of MMA was UFC’s acquisition of its biggest rival, Strikeforce, earlier this year. The deal was the most important of many business shake-ups in the industry over the course of the year that consolidated UFC’s position from being the WWE – the undisputed top rank in the chain of mixed martial arts – to the equivalent of the NFL, practically defining professional mixed martial arts. The merger also made UFC inherit Strikeforce’s business relationship with Showtime, the closest thing to a true cable sports network the CBS Corporation has.

Putting UFC events on premium cable is a logical middle ground between broadly-distributed broadcast and cable, and the cash cow of pay-per-view, and while CBS is acutely interested in growing Showtime and putting it closer to the level of HBO, they might have actually held a considerable amount of leverage, as many of Strikeforce’s fighters apparently actually have contracts with Showtime, not with Strikeforce directly. If the UFC wanted to avoid considerable legal wrangling to maintain control of those fighters and keep Showtime from taking them to whatever other organization comes calling, they may have to get a deal done with Showtime, and CBS might take advantage of that situation by insisting on certain high-level programming andĀ privilegesĀ for the CBS network, and even putting a substantial amount of programming on CBS Sports Network to grow that network and branch it out beyond college.

Quite a few shows would still be bad enough fits for either that they’d have to stay on Showtime, though, and in general CBS doesn’t have properties with big enough viewership to continue growing the sport beyond the broadcast network. In any case, given the way the UFC does business they’d probably prefer not to be held hostage with Showtime and go through the legal wrangling anyway, or let those fighters go.

There is precedent for the UFC continuing a relationship it inherited from an organization it acquired, though. It didn’t happen with the relationship with FSN the company inherited from PRIDE, but quite a few UFC cards have aired on Versus since UFC inherited its arrangement with WEC. (These cards have shown that UFC has been willing to compromise with regards to presentation, with pre- and post-shows and Versus’ graphics package, but UFC’s announcers and general broadcast structure and feel.) I originally wanted to hold off on writing this post until after the NFL sorted out its Thursday Night package because I didn’t think the UFC would reach an agreement until after then, and because I felt that would have had a big impact on NBC/Comcast’s chances. If Comcast had lost out on the NFL, I would think the UFC would be substantially more reticent to shack up with a network not guaranteed to have any programming much bigger than the UFC itself. The UFC, including shows like The Ultimate Fighter, would be a good starting point for growing the NBC Sports Network, but the limits of its perception would have limited the effect.

The elephant in the living room, though, might be ESPN, and it is here where we come to the reason why I’m hoping Comcast’s proposed new 6 PM ET news show is the beginning of a serious effort to challenge SportsCenter. Personally, I think ESPN’s penchant for only promoting sports it airs on SportsCenter is substantially overstated. The example usually given is that of the NHL, but I think ESPN gives the NHL coverage consummate with its status as a relatively niche sport, with a few highlights every night. During what is, by a significant margin, the most-watched NHL event of the year, the Stanley Cup Final, ESPN goes as far as to send Steve Levy and Barry Melrose to the games to provide highlights and analysis. (If you ask me, FSN’s old “Final Score” program was at least as guilty of favoritism as SportsCenter, airing as many NHL highlights as NBA highlights – because NHL games provide a lot of programming for their regional sports networks.)

However, that’s not to say ESPN doesn’t provide some favoritism to its own sports, and MMA might be a far better example of this. By some measures, MMA has popularity on par with some of the major sports, but though ESPN does air a Friday night MMA Live show on ESPN2, you’d still never know its popularity from watching SportsCenter. MMA tends to get brief, perfunctory highlights at best, usually of just the main event of any given card, and that edited down to maybe a minute. Under the current status quo, MMA absolutely needs the cooperation of ESPN to be considered a major sport, and perhaps that’s why Dana White flirted with ESPN by putting its UFC Primetime show on ESPN2 earlier this year. If broadcast television was important to White, though, ESPN’s penchant for trying to kill sports on ABC might have substantially hindered a deal. It wouldn’t be a deal-breaker, though, so the main obstacle would be that the UFC needs ESPN far more than ESPN needs the UFC.

If UFC wanted to sign with a single organization and wasn’t concerned about broadcast television, Turner would have also been a good fit, with shows like The Ultimate Fighter on TNT and/or truTV and fight cards on HBO. However, although they do want to grow truTV outside the NCAA Tournament, I think Turner would have only been interested to keep Showtime from gaining momentum.

And in the end, that wouldn’t be necessary, because apparently the two major contenders were Comcast and Fox, and Fox is reportedly set to announce a long-term deal later today, which will include up to four events on broadcast television and shows like The Ultimate Fighter on FX, plus some programming on Fuel TV. Fox has always been the “edgier” of the four major networks, which culturally should make them a great fit for the UFC (which would have been iffier for the more genteel NBC or CBS, though CBS has already aired MMA from the defunct EliteXC and Strikeforce), and UFC programming will help FX establish its bona fides as a sports network – and only TNT and ESPN would attract more cable eyeballs to the UFC, at least short-term.

What’s still to be established is whether the four Fox cards would be marquee events, or things closer to the UFC’s Versus and Fight Night on Spike programming, as well as how the presentation will be controlled (Gus Johnson or Mike Goldberg?). I’ll update this post later with those details. But for the moment, the UFC appears to have taken a gigantic step forward towards being perceived as, and actually becoming, a mainstream sport, as well as setting the direction of MMA for years if not decades to come.

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