In the week prior to the UFC's debut on Fox this past Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, the focal point of discussions among MMA media and fans didn't revolve heavily around the style clash between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. Most of us weren't talking about Ben Henderson's impressive rise from WEC lightweight contender to potential UFC lightweight contender. The focal point of the discussion, even among fans, was what the barometer of success was for the UFC's debut on network television.
Among the talking heads, most estimates hovered around a baseline of six million viewers on average with many analysts suggesting the UFC would hit six-and-a-half to seven million viewers. Those estimates were based on past events that aired on free television, most notably EliteXC's Primetime event featuring both Kimbo Slice and Gina Carano. That event peaked at 6.51 million viewers and produced an average of 4.3 million viewers.
The initial numbers released by TV by the Numbers on Sunday were a disappointment, indicating the UFC's debut only drew an average of 4.64 million viewers. Later in the day after time zone adjustments were made, however, Fox released a higher average number of 5.7 million viewers. Surprisingly, the reaction from many pundits and fans didn't change. The expectations were set high, and the UFC didn't meet the bar.
Strangely, the overestimation seems to be driven by this elitist view that the combination of Gina Carano and Kimbo Slice shouldn't be able to draw even close to a brand like the UFC. If that's the basis of an argument, why didn't the UFC crush the 6.51 million viewer peak of EliteXC: Primetime? Why didn't the UFC produce higher viewership with Fox's marketing muscle behind it?
I think the UFC's reliance on brand recognition combined with the fact that Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos aren't known to casual sports' fans made those ratings' goals unrealistic. Obviously, Kimbo Slice's success on network television set the bar at a high level. We have to start somewhere, and to think that the UFC wasn't looking at the number as a benchmark is ridiculous. Unfortunately, that high level was thought to be low, low because people believed that the more recognized UFC brand and a main event heavyweight title bout would surpass a circus act like Kimbo by miles.
Kimbo Slice may not be a real mixed martial artist, but he transcended the boundaries that limited the drawing power of any mixed martial arts promotion. It's the same reason a fighter like Brock Lesnar can pull down over one million buys on a pay-per-view. He interests casual sports' fans who may not necessarily follow MMA religiously or even casually. Look no further than the non-MMA fan asking Ariel Helwani where Kimbo Slice is at in his career on the streets of Hollywood. Or how about the young man who knows what the UFC is, but he only knows that Kimbo Slice is a UFC fighter?
The UFC Primetime shows didn't create any hype between the two fighters either. Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez, in our own little world as UFC President Dana White describes it, are great fighters that we want to see. In the spectrum of casual sports' fans, they aren't, and there wasn't any animosity between the two to fuel interest.
The UFC should be pleased with the ratings they got. Going head-to-head with a pivotal college football match-up between Oregon and Stanford, which drew 7.11 million viewers, is normally a recipe for disaster if the 18-34 demographic is what you're attempting to reach, yet the UFC still pulled in 5.7 million viewers. I imagine the peak numbers will be considerably higher since the game went to halftime as Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez entered the cage, possibly exceeding the 6.51 million mark of EliteXC: Primetime.
I think we really need to look hard at the idea that the UFC's brand alone can draw in massive numbers on network television. Sure, the UFC's name is more well-known than the actual acronym of the sport, but does that really mean that people will have a vested interest in a fight without being persuaded to care?
Kimbo Slice's rise to fame in MMA was predicated on a bunch of Youtube! backyard fights that made him a pop culture attraction. Those videos ended up getting viewed by millions of people. Is it really unimaginable to think that the numbers he pulled are on the high mark rather than the low? It shouldn't be. Despite all the marketing and hype produced around a heavyweight title fight, there is still truth to the idea that a name and a story draw. The UFC on Fox's debut didn't quite have that flavor, yet pulled in a solid number against some stiff competition. What's the disappointment in that?