The short answer is, it's probably in the top three, at least for now. Sorry if this analysis is really long.
The WEC's lack of exposure being on a lesser cable network is a very common complain among MMA fans, especially among those who live in the U.S. but still don't get the channel in their line-up. I was wondering what the best potential options might be if the WEC hadn't re-upped their contract with Versus recently, so I consulted a website that lists weekly cable network viewer totals, both in primetime and overall daily averages. I decided to check out the most recent week for which data was available as of the writing of this article, and list the top 50 American cable networks and see both where Versus and Spike stood, and which ones were a bad fit demographically. Out of the top 50 cable networks, Spike was 19th in primetime that week, which I believe is lower than average, and Versus was 30th, which is about average for them as of late. The fact is, Versus has been growing hugely very recently with the acquisition of NHL games and IndyCar races. They just aren't a fourth-tier network anymore. 30th on cable is still pretty far from the top though, and WEC events still do quite a bit above their typical primetime viewership average, so I still wondered if there wasn't a superior alternative. The results were a bit surprising. More after the jump.
Something I found though that was very significant, was that out of these top 50 networks, 40 are just immediately bad demographic fits or incompatible thematically to air the WEC. This is just a one week sampling, and the individual rankings obviously fluctuate week-to-week, but the Top 50 don't change nearly as much. Here's the list of the most watched networks in primetime the week of May 25-31, 2009:
|Network||# of Viewers x 1000||Good fit for MMA?|
|4) Disney||2,290||Bad Fit|
|5) Fox News||1,908||Bad Fit|
|6) TLC (formerly The Learning Channel)||1,733||Bad Fit|
|8) Nick at Nite||1,567||Bad Fit|
|10) A&E||1,439||Bad Fit|
|11) Lifetime||1,291||Bad Fit|
|12) Discovery Channel||1,287||Bad Fit|
|13) History Channel||1,226||Bad Fit|
|14) Family Channel||1,215||Bad Fit|
|15) Home & Garden TV||1,182||Bad Fit|
|16) Cartoon Network||1,141||Bad Fit|
|17) American Movie Classics||1,094||Bad Fit|
|18) MTV||1,085||It's A Stretch|
|20) SciFi||998||Bad Fit|
|21) The Food Network||976||Bad Fit|
|22) TruTV (formerly CourtTV)||954||Bad Fit|
|23) Hallmark||888||Bad Fit|
|24) Comedy Central||798||Bad Fit|
|25) BET||759||It's A Stretch|
|27) TV Land
|32) Animal Planet
|34) E! Entertainment Television
|35) ESPN 2
|36) Lifetime Movie Network
|37) Headline News
|38) The Travel Channel
|40) Country Music Television
|41) National Geographic
|44) GSN (formerly the Game Show Network)||327||Bad Fit|
|45) Womens Entertainment
|47) Disney XD
|49) Discovery Health
|50) The Weather Channel
At first I didn't have Speed in the "Bad Fit" category, but reviewing their schedule there is literally nothing not automotive related. Black Entertainment Television is in the "Stretch" category since they actually had an MMA reality show, but I wouldn't consider the WEC specifically to fit in well on their network.
This leaves: TNT (1), USA (2), ESPN (3), FX (7), TBS (9), MTV (18), Spike (19), Versus (30), ESPN 2 (35) and WGN (41).
Since TNT is not specifically sports oriented, even if they do some sports, and is usually a Top 4-5 cable network, I doubt they they would put WEC on their network unless it was for free. They're a network for the UFC to look at, should something disastrous happen to their relationship with Spike, but not the WEC.
I have a strong feeling that USA wouldn't want to risk pissing off their #1 franchise World Wrestling Entertainment by putting a Zuffa owned MMA promotion on their network. Whether they'll admit to it or not, the WWE sees the UFC and MMA in general as a threat, as the UFC is the only non-wrestling television programming that they internally keep track of the ratings for on a weekly basis, and there's no guarantee that the WEC will stay away from PPV forever, which is what the WWE would be particularly concerned about.
TBS is a network I have a hard time seeing wanting to take the WEC. The only sports they really do are Major League Baseball. They might consider MMA, but I don't think they would consider a second-tier promotion, and if they did, and if they did, it probably wouldn't be in primetime and they wouldn't do much to advertise it. Meanwhile Versus airs best-of shows and replays all the time.
ESPN might take the WEC, but they'd almost certainly insist on a lot more production control than Versus does, including match-making and commentators. I doubt they would put them in primetime either, or do much to advertise them.
MTV caters to young people, and would probably be open to doing some sort of MMA show, but for that to be the WEC they'd have to completely change their production to something almost unrecognizable. When MTV tried their own wrestling show a few years ago, it ended up being half an hour long and being over the top bizarre, with half the audience made up of paid hipster extras. Not necessarily a bad thing for professional wrestling, but I don't see why their approach would be much different when it came to MMA. They'd probably also insist it be a weekly original series, which would be very difficult to do without taping a whole bunch of "episodes" at once, and then the results would be out for weeks ahead of time. Creative control has been one of the keys to Zuffa's success, and I don't see them giving it up, nor do I think it'd necessarily be a good idea.
Would FX take the WEC? If FX was in the position they were in eight or nine years ago, I think they'd consider it. Today? They might be interested in the UFC, but MMA in general does not fit in well thematically, since they usually don't do any sports, and they get much better ratings than they used to. I just seriously doubt they would be interested in the WEC and if they took it, it'd end up in some slot past midnight.
I could definitely see WGN being interested in MMA and specifically WEC events, but I just don't see them giving the same level of promotion that Versus does, nor do they have a ratings advantage.
So what's left are Spike, ESPN 2, Versus, and I suppose the broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, CW, and MyNetworkTV), syndication, and premium cable (HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, etc.). NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox are America's four biggest networks, and are all pipe dreams. They would have no interest. The CW seems like an incredible longshot. MyNetworkTV I believe used to air the IFL, but they may or may not even still exist in a few years. They also air WWE Smackdown, which is their highest rated show, plus they provide less than 20 hours of weekly programming a week, so I don't see them sacrificing any of that at the risk of pissing off the WWE. Syndication pretty much doesn't work when it comes to nationally televised sports, although if the WEC wanted to syndicate a best-of show like WreckCage like the UFC does with UFC Wired, that wouldn't be a bad idea. It couldn't possibly be their main outlet though, and would basically just serve as advertising.
As far as premium cable goes, most of the significant ones are just straight up movie channels with the occasional late-night softcore porn (see Cinemax). The only two big ones that do sporting events like this are Showtime and HBO. Showtime is out, since they already air Strikeforce. I can't imagine that isn't an exclusive agreement. Otherwise I think they just might be on the table. This leaves HBO. I know the UFC was in negotiations with them at one point and it fell through, in part because of creative control issues. I would guess that HBO would be even less high on the idea of letting Zuffa have full creative control over the WEC. I also doubt that HBO would be willing to pay very much for it, and I certainly doubt we'd see them promoting it very much. The best case scenario is if it were rotated into Friday Night Boxing's usual timeslot every other month.
There's definitely a prestige factor that comes with being on HBO, and everyone knows what it is, but since HBO isn't in nearly as many households as a lot of other networks, it doesn't offer a big advantage in the way of exposure in case the WEC wanted to do PPVs. Finally, I would think if HBO were actually interested (and I would bet against it), it would be only a vague interest, and the conditions, creatively, financially, and promotionally, would just be quite unfavorable
This leaves us with just Spike, ESPN 2, and Versus. ESPN 2 is more well-known than Versus, and MMA fits in just fine thematically, but ESPN 2 does not actually offer a ratings advantage. There is also no guarantee that they would give them the same level of promotion on their network, although it's possible, and they might be more open to letting WEC run PPVs, which Versus supposedly may have nixed. I would put them on the table. Probably Versus is the better option, but not definitely.
Between Spike TV and Versus, Spike TV has considerably higher ratings, is better known, and probably would not give a rat's ass if the WEC also ran PPVs. They also are the home of the UFC and have an extensive relationship with Zuffa already, so they would probably be fine giving the WEC ample promotion if they brought them on board. Furthermore, cross promotion between the UFC and WEC would be invaluable. The one caveat would be that Spike TV might not want to be known as "The MMA Network," plus they would in even more of a pickle should their relationship with Zuffa sour, however unlikely that might be.
So, concluding, I'm going to have to say Versus isn't such a bad option for World Extreme Cagefighting after all. Among the most plausible options, Spike would be the most ideal, but Zuffa apparently doesn't want both their babies on the same network, and they could do far worse than Versus.