Bellator's Bjorn Rebney launches his first season on MTV2 on Saturday. Photo via Sherdog.
It's not often that fans get to see all three of America's biggest MMA promotions all plying their trade inside one three-day period.
While it's obvious that the UFC is the big dog in the pack -- honestly it's practically in a different pack -- both Strikeforce and Bellator have achieved what old-time MMA fans would have regarded as the holy grail -- alliances with major cable networks and regular broadcasting schedules.
The UFC has gotten so big they're able to ply their wares on two networks while occasionally dallying with a third. In addition to their marriage to Spike TV, they will be running their third Ultimate Fight Night card on Versus tonight. Then just for grins they run the odd prelim, like UFC 127 on Ion TV's broadcast network.
Of course ratings on ION TV were down a tad this Saturday, MMA Weekly reports:
The UFC 127: Penn vs. Fitch preliminary bouts that aired live on Ion Television on Saturday night drew an average of 714,000 viewers, according to industry sources. That number is a slight drop from UFC 125, which averaged 829,000 viewers for the broadcast network.
Dave Meltzer adds some analysis at The Wrestling Observer (subscription required):
The prelims on Ion, which was a commercial-free UFC time buy, did a 0.43 rating and 714,000 viewers. Three weeks earlier on Spike, the same prelims show, which had commercial interruptions, did a 1.24 rating and 2.0 million viewers, which was record setting numbers. That seems to indicate Spike is important to UFC because most of its regular Countdown audience did not bother to watch on Ion, either because they didn't know or some other reason. The prior time, with literally no notice, that UFC put prelims on Ion, they did 829,000 viewers, so this was down, even with more lead time. It appears 700,000 to 850,000 is the number of people who are either the Ion bare minimum prime time viewers combined with the amount of UFC fans who knew about the show. The other350,000 to 1.25 million more likely simply didn't know about it as their prime source of info on watching UFC is seeing whatever is advertised while watching Spike during the week (such as UFC, or other programming on the station including TNA), and there were no ads for the Ion airings on Spike. A typical Ion prime time show will be 1,260,000 viewers, but it's a network that hardly matches the UFC demographic well
So the UFC seems to be learning that Spike is hard to replace for airing prelims. Tonight they'll continue their experiment with the Versus network. The first UFC on Versus did 1.24 million viewers, but the second UFN on Versus dropped 20% and got 990,000 viewers. Tonight's show will be a critical test of the UFC and Versus relationship.
And the UFC/Versus relationship matters because Comcast owns Versus and now NBC. If the UFC can deliver massive ratings on Versus that makes them much more attractive as an acquisition for NBC/Comcast when the UFC's deal with Spike TV expires at the end of 2011.
For reference, the WEC's best ever show on Versus -- WEC 34: Faber vs Pulver -- got 1.54 million viewers. The UFC needs to show growth over their first two broadcasts on Versus tonight.
The UFC is also continuing to invest in international expansion. UFC international boss Marshall Zelaznik told MMA Junkie that the UFC's Swedish debut is "very likely" for November. Scandinavia has long been an MMA hotbed and while Sweden's not the biggest market, it's a very wealthy one, as are Norway, Denmark and not-quite Scandinavian but oh so close Finland. With Strikeforce's aborted attempt to expand into Japan ending in fiasco, the UFC's ability to take their show on the road remains an ace hole card for the sport's leading promotion.
Up next is Bellator with their 35th event and their third welterweight tournament. Mike Chiappetta did a great summary of Bellator's ever-improving TV deals:
A three-year broadcast deal in hand, Rebney can now spend more time focusing on the actual product, something that has already drawn raves from many fans for exciting fights.
In year one of Bellator, there was no U.S. television deal, with English-language fights only available online. In year two, Fox Sports Net aired fights nationwide, but start times were unpredictable, often delayed and pre-empted in major markets.
In crafting a deal with MTV2, though, Rebney built in a clause that guarantees nationwide, Saturday night primetime live broadcasts each week, with start times flexible based upon what's going on in the rest of the MMA world. So on a night Bellator is the only national event, it will air at 9 p.m. ET. But if the UFC has a show on the same night, it will move up to as early as 7 p.m. ET.
People have been very critical of Bellator's deal with MTV2 because they are skeptical that MTV2 can deliver the MMA demographic. Looking at the Saturday line-up on the network I see a block of Pros vs Joes featuring MMA fighters followed by a block of Bully Beatdown featuring Jason 'Mayhem' Miller. That looks like a good block of intro programming to me.
It's notable that while Bellator plans to get out of the way of the UFC, they are not showing the same respect to Strikeforce. Saturday's Bellator show will start at 10 p.m. ET directly going up against Strikeforce's Fejao vs Henderson on Showtime.
That makes sense on one level as Showtime's pay cable status will leave a lot of MMA fans out in the cold, but practically I think it could ding Bellator's ratings a tiny bit as many MMA hardcore fans will chose Strikeforce instead.
But Strikeforce, ah Strikeforce. Not only have they bolluxed up their Heavyweight tourny, but they aren't even the only MMA promotion on Showtime. From the Wrestling Observer:
Showtime and M-1 Global announced the first show of their new relationship, a live show on 3/25 from the Constant Center in Norfolk that will air at 11 p.m., which is the Strikeforce Challengers show time slot. That will mean three straight weekends of MMA on Showtime since a Challengers show is on 4/1 and a major Strikeforce show is on 4/9. The M-1 Global contract with Showtime, which was known to be part of the negotiations M-1 had with the network to get Fedor Emelianenko on Showtime, is believed to be for multiple shows. ... It is interesting seeing Showtime go with a promotion other than Strikeforce, and they are using Mauro Ranallo and Pat Miletich as announcers, or the same crew that is used for Strikeforce.
Strikeforce's entry is Rafael 'Feijao' Cavalcante vs Dan Henderson. Feijao may be the champ, but it's Henderson they're counting on to draw eyeballs. Unfortunately for Henderson they're not giving him anything in the way of a supporting cast as far as casual fan appeal. No Herschel Walker. No Gina Carano. Nothing. Henderson vs Sobral did a fairly weak peak of 465,000 viewers in December per MMA Junkie.
I don't expect Henderson will come anywhere close to those numbers on Saturday.
Matt Bishop talked about what this show means for Strikeforce's momentum a while back:
The real key is going to be the March 5 show in Columbus, Ohio featuring a Rafael Cavalcante light-heavyweight title defense against Dan Henderson. Henderson's last show, headlining against Renato Sobral in December, averaged 341,000 viewers. Cavalcante's last fight, against "King Mo" Lawal in August, averaged 367,000 viewers. If these two have a good ratings outing on Showtime, the proof will be in the pudding. That's momentum.
If not, well, the return of the heavyweight tournament will only be a month later and, in theory, should do good numbers considering the success of (February's) show.
Unfortunately for Strikeforce, postponing the second installment of the heavyweight tournament means that the April show isn't a guaranteed ratings success and could show, once again, that casual fans care more for their novelty bouts than their championship fights.