2013 UFC and MMA Ratings Wrap-Up

Here are the top 50 most-watched live MMA cards of 2013, 30 from UFC and 20 from Bellator, with prelims and main cards separated out. Below that are full numbers for every UFC card not on Fuel/FS2 in chronological order. See here for all Fuel/FS2 main cards (not prelims) as well as numbers for every episode of The Ultimate Fighter.

Numbers for boxing are not consistently well-reported with enough specificity for my tastes, but this contains, to my knowledge, viewership for every boxing match of 2013 on HBO and Showtime with over a million viewers.

Viewership and household ratings for Fox Sports 1 cards from Son of the Bronx. Viewership and household ratings for Fox and some other cards from SportsBusiness Daily. Where 18-49 ratings appear, viewership and 18-49 ratings from The Futon Critic, with some from TVbytheNumbers. PPV buyrates from Wikipedia. Other numbers from various other sources. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts.

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Cleanup on aisle UFC

Because I don’t want to roll this up into a much longer NFL post…

I posed the question as to who would control the UFC’s broadcasts on Fox as “Gus Johnson or Mike Goldberg?” The answer might be both: because of the sheer volume of UFC programming on Fox and FX, the UFC is thinking about bringing in more commentators to take some of the load off of Goldberg and Joe Rogan, which Johnson’s existing relationships with Strikeforce and Fox would make him a natural fit for. Similarly, while UFC will still be controlling the presentation, they will work closely with Fox to make it as good as it can be.

As for the quality of fights to expect on free TV, the UFC’s rights fee is substantially smaller than that of other sports, so pay-per-view will remain the backbone of the business, implying you won’t see Brock Lesnar v. Fedor Emelianenko on Fox anytime soon. That article makes it feel more like a stepping-stone, putting the product on broadcast TV to increase exposure and respect to the point where the company can afford a real TV deal. However, the UFC will be cutting back on PPVs slightly, all parties made clear that this deal is “just the beginning” and a foundation for future growth, and Dana White told Entertainment Weekly‘s TV blog that “the broadcast fights will be significant matchups, rather than saving all the important bouts for Pay Per View. ‘We want to pull ratings, we want to pull the big numbers,’ White said.” So the Fox fights will be PPV caliber, but will they be top-notch caliber? Rumors that featherweights will be among those featured on the first one-hour Fox show in November have me doubtful about that, at least for the short term, and I don’t know how top-notch the UFC will be able to go in the next seven years on Fox given the rights fee probably isn’t changing.

Still, one thing was already clear: UFC just changed the game in MMA, and may have made themselves completely invulnerable, to the extent they weren’t already, to any attempt to challenge their supremacy.

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.

2.5 3 2.5 0 0

How Dana White could end up holding UFC back

Yesterday I watched UFC head honcho Dana White interviewed on ESPN’s Jim Rome is Burning. Dana White is probably the Mark Cuban of sports commissioners, the closest real sports come to the bombast of a Vince McMahon, but that’s not the reason I’m concerned about something coming out of the interview. White seemed dismissive of attempts to compete with UFC such as Strikeforce, but that may not turn out to be the best approach. White said UFC could be on network television right now, maybe even years ago, if they had received the right TV deal, and attacked rival MMA organizations (the deceased EliteXC being the first to come to my mind) for rushing into any old TV deal too fast too soon. White also proclaimed that UFC could be among the biggest sports in the country once they got the right TV deal.

I’m concerned, just a little, that White may be looking too hard for the right TV deal, and not settling for a good enough TV deal. If White keeps biding his time waiting for the perfect package, he may find himself vulnerable to a challenge, and possibly being overtaken, from a rival organization that’s willing to settle for maybe a weaker TV deal than White wants but run by better people than the showrunners of the IFL or EliteXC. Dana White just may be too much of a perfectionist for UFC’s own good, and even if MMA does achieve the heights White has in mind, I still think White’s needlessly leaving open an opening for the organization leading it to those heights not to be UFC.

Of course, that’s not even getting into what comes across to me (outside the interview) as somewhat dictatorial tendencies, but maybe that comes with the territory of arranging the cards manually…

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 10/25-26

All times PDT.

9:30-1 PM: College Football, #24 Kentucky @ defending 2008 BCS titleholder #5 Florida (Raycom Sports). Raycom always seems to get unusually good games from the SEC… too bad that’s about to end.

12:30-4 PM: College Football, defending Princton-Yale titleholder #6 Oklahoma State @ #1 Texas (ABC). The Northeast is getting this game. The Rockies are getting this game. Parts of the South are getting this game. But seriously, you couldn’t have found some way to get this better national distribution? The Pac-10 and Big 12 really need better contracts; the SEC and Big 10 are almost guaranteed to have their top game going out nationally every week. Surprised the Big 12 resigned almost an identical deal last year after the Big 10 got a reverse-mirror deal.

Alternately: 12:30-4 PM: College Football, #12 Georgia @ LSU (CBS) or Virginia Tech @ Florida State (ABC/ESPN2). You have to live on the West Cosat (like me) to be completely reduced to Georgia-LSU.

3:30-7 PM: College Football, Colorado @ #11 Missouri (FSN). Really just a gapfiller.

7-9:30 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC 90 (PPV). Isn’t this an awfully quick turnaround from UFC 89?

10-3 PM: NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing, Pep Boys Auto 500 (ABC). Does NASCAR need to move the Chase away from NFL season?

5-8:30 PM: MLB Baseball, Rays @ Phillies (FOX). Sorry, no NFL this week.

8-10 PM: IndyCar Racing, Gold Coast IndyCar 300 (ESPN2). Does this really count? I mean, it’s so far after the end of the season…

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 10/18-19

All times PDT.

9:30-1 PM: College football, #23 Vanderbilt @ #13 Georgia (Raycom Sports, available free online from Yahoo Sports). When you think about it, the SEC’s new deal isn’t much different from their old one. They even have Arkansas-Kentucky on ESPNU this week. Except their syndicator is ESPN Plus now, so it’s not even available to everyone online. So they’re still screwing themselves out of a good third place game getting national exposure. Maybe ESPNU will become less of the ACC Network, I don’t know.

12:30-3 PM: College football, #17 Kansas @ #4 Oklahoma (ABC, not available in most markets). I’d say the Big 12 gets screwed by never getting reverse mirrored on ESPN with the Big 10 game when the craptastic ACC does, but it does have Texas-Missou in primetime going to the whole country.

Alternately: 12:30-3 PM: College Football, #28 Ohio State @ #11 Michigan State (ABC or ESPN). I just realized that somehow, the Week 7 rankings aren’t on the web site as I thought. Either they got dropped from the backups in Freehostia’s ongoing transfer, or I just forgot them. Sure enough, Sandsday is missing a strip now so it’s the former. You might have wanted to make your last backup after shutting off the file manager, guys – unless you still have backups and you’re sadistically torturing me with the old copy because it’s fresh or something. (Man, how ill-timed is this whole voting sequence, with the cold last weekend and the backing-up this weekend?)

5-8:30 PM: MLB Baseball, Red Sox @ Rays (TBS). Well after that comeback I might actually watch and pay attention to this game. A damn shame it’s not on broadcast.

9-12 AM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC 89 (SpikeTV). Same on both coasts. I don’t think anyone other than diehards cares about the main event match.

10-3 PM: NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing, TUMS QuikPak 500 (ABC). I’ve dropped a lot of NASCAR Chase for the Cup races, haven’t I?

5:15-8:30 PM: NFL Football, Broncos @ Patriots (NBC). Hey, remember when the Patriots had a half-decent quarterback for a couple of years?

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 9/6-7

All times PDT.

10-1 PM: College Football, New Hampshire @ Army (ESPN Classic). I chose this game almost completely at random. (Hey, Troy-LSU got postponed due to Gustav and would have interfered with tennis anyway, Missouri would also interfere with tennis, and all three lineal title games aren’t even on regional television. FSN South and SunSports for the Central Michigan-Georgia game doesn’t count.)

1:30-5 PM: College Football, West Virginia @ East Carolina (ESPN). Yes, Fox baseball will probably fall off the face of the earth with college football season in full swing.

5-7 PM: US Open Tennis, Women’s Final, S. Williams v. Jankovic (CBS). Rather than the all Williams final YOU demand, you get Williams versus a nobody!

7-10 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC 88 (PPV). Eighty-eight, eighty-eight, eight eighty eighty-eight… why isn’t this being held in China? Okay, I’m in an odd mood this week, you can tell because I didn’t even mention Couture v. Lesnar…

10-1 PM: NFL Football, NY Jets @ Miami (CBS). OMG it’s the debut of Brett Favre! Let’s watch every single Jets game with such rapt attention our eyes come out of our sockets! (NASCAR or WNBA also possible.)

1-4 PM: US Open Tennis, Men’s Final (CBS). I know nothing about this! NOTING!

Honorable Mention: 12:30-3 PM: IndyCar Racing, PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300 (ABC). It’s the last race of the season! The championship all comes down to this! (Er… ignore that little Australian race in the corner coming in a month and a half…)

Second Honorable Mention: 11-3 PM: PGA Tour Golf, The Barclays BMW Championship, final round (NBC). More of the playoff that’s nothing like a playoff! Why is this even on here?

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, Philadelphia @ NY Mets (ESPN). I like cookies.

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 8/9-10

All times PDT.

2-1 PM: Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, soccer, shooting, badminton, fencing, equestrian, beach volleyball, basketball, and weightlifting, including the awarding of shooting and weightlifting medals (USA). Same on both coasts. According to NBC’s olympic site, “the first gold medal awarded at the Beijing Games could come in” either the shooting or weightlifting events. Aren’t they both scheduled for a certain time? Could you not just look at the schedule?

1-3 PM: Little League Baseball, Senior League Softball World Series (ESPN2). No, they’re not just making random shit up to tide people over for the big shebang.

3-5:30 PM: IndyCar Racing, IndyCar 300 at Kentucky (ESPN2). A moment of silence for the IRL’s impending move to Versus.

7-10 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC 87 (PPV). So it turns out the UFC does space out its PPVs after all. I apologize for suggesting otherwise. Interferes with Olympic primetime coverage on the West Coast.

11-11 AM: Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, basketball, tennis, soccer, archery, and weightlifting, including the awarding of medals in archery and two in weightlifting (USA). Same on both coasts (if that causes a problem, coverage is on NBC from 12:30 to 6 AM). Because real men stay up all night watching the Olympics!

11-4 PM: PGA Golf, PGA Championship, final round (CBS). If golf were to become part of the Olympics, what would happen to the PGA Championship?

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, St. Louis @ Chicago Cubs (ESPN). Hey, I need to get baseball in somewhere. I should have NBC’s primetime coverage next week.

11-1:30 AM: Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, boxing and tennis (CNBC). NBC has said that they’re putting stuff on CNBC that fits with its male demographic. Um… not the UFC, bloodlust-filled male demographic… more like the wimpy, pass-the-caviar, rich-snob demographic…

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 7/26-27

All times PDT.

10:30-12 PM: Champions Tour Golf, Senior British Open, third round (ABC). If we’re putting up the third round of a golf tournament – of a SENIOR TOUR golf tournament – we are scraping the bottom of the barrel to put up something, ANYTHING.

1:30-3 PM: AVP Volleyball, Men’s final from Long Beach (NBC). Yes, we are really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

9-11 PM (both coasts): EliteXC Mixed Martial Arts, Saturday Night Fights (CBS). I’m still waiting to see what the ratings are for Saturday Night Fights Mark II, but hey, there’s nothing else on, other than a re-air of UFC 84 on Spike.

10-11 AM: Cycling, Tour de France (CBS). See a bunch of doped-up freaks motor their way to the finish line! Er… on second thought…

10-12 PM: Champions Tour Golf, Senior British Open, final round (ABC). It’s your chance to see Greg Norman all over again!

Honorable Mention: 10:30-1:30 PM: MLB Baseball, Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (ESPN Classic). Goose Gossage and a bunch of people who never played a game.

12-3 PM: Arena Football League, ArenaBowl XXII (ABC). Down in the dumps because there’s no football? Get yourself revved up for the new season! (Who says the NFL season is short? I think the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and associated Game is next week, which means the NFL plays from August into February. The NFL shoves football down our throat for half a year and keeps at it the rest of the time! If you go from the HoF to the Draft, we have nine months where we obsess about football!)

In all seriousness, I’m actually going to be watching the Arena Bowl – try and get myself into it.

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, NY Yankees @ Boston (ESPN). GAA-GAA IT’S THE SOX AND THE YANKEES GAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!11!111!!111!!!!!!111!1!!eleven!

Sports Watcher for the Weekend of 7/19-20 (UPDATED)

All times PDT.

11:30-1 PM: AVP Crocs Tour, AVP Crocs Slam Brooklyn, men’s final (NBC). Yes, despite the British Open we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel this week.

1-4 PM: MLB Baseball, regional action (FOX). Tune in immediately upon the end of volleyball. Because it didn’t end in a tie I originally wasn’t going to comment on the All-Star Game, until people on TV started commenting on it anyway. The “this time it counts” era was supposed to prevent this sort of thing, and it’s obvious that it didn’t. Now there’s a lot of hand-wringing about adding more pitchers to the roster, but how about tackling the problem at its source? Here are the problems with the ASG and their sources:

  • The players and managers treat it like an exhibition, instead of as a source of pride for their league. “This time it counts” was supposed to fix that problem, and strangely, it’s being credited for fixing that problem. We may be able to attribute to “this time it counts” the fact we could have gone into the 16th whereas 2002 ended after 12, and the managers were prepared to use position players to pitch instead of ending the game in a tie.
  • The managers feel obligated to use every player that’s willing, to mollify them but even more to mollify their fans. In the old days, it wasn’t uncommon for position players to play the whole game.
  • Teams’ concerns about overworking pitchers.
  • The rise of middle relievers and closers. Have a look at the 1968 All Star Game, the year before saves became an official stat. You see the same pitching carousel we see now, with a few more multi-inning pitchers – but every last pitcher was a starter, in an age where it was rare for pitchers to fail to go seven innings. The 1967 All-Star Game went 15 innings with no problem; Catfish Hunter pitched the final five innings for the AL (and ultimately lost), a feat that seems inconceivable today. Now teams protect pitchers more and gobble up large chunks of their rosters with relievers. Now pitching is not a position where players are interchangable at will – replacement pitchers have specific roles in theory – and thus is not a position well suited for all-star games. The NBA All-Star Game may well be the best all-star game, followed by the NHL, because their games actually feel like real games, unusually strong offense notwithstanding.

I’m not sure if anything can be done about any of that at this point, but if anything can, it’s worth thinking about.

6:30-9:30 PM: NASCAR Nationwide Series racing, Gateway (ESPN2). Because I rarely get a chance to put up a Nationwide Series race and there’s no Sprint Cup action this week.

UPDATED 7/19: ALTERNATE: 6-9 PM: Ultimate Fighting Championship, Fight Night (Spike TV). Not sure how highly to rate this since it’s not what would normally be considered a PPV, but I don’t want it to go unmentioned. Live on both coasts, so 9-12 on the East Coast.

5-10:30 AM: PGA Golf, British Open, final round (ABC). If there’s a golf tournament, and Tiger isn’t playing in it, does it make a sound?

10:30-1 PM: IndyCar Racing, Honda Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio (ABC). Last year ratings were inflated by the British Open. Look for history to repeat itself.

12-2 PM: LPGA Golf, State Farm Classic, final round (ESPN2). Girl Power Sunday again!

2-4 PM: US Open Series, Bank of the West Classic, women’s singles final (ESPN2). Girl Power Sunday and Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel Weekend again!

6-8 PM: The ESPY Awards (ESPN). Because there can exist nothing for which there is not an awards show of some kind. And no network should have to go without an awards show.