David Hill, Chairman of Fox Sports and former head of Sky Sports. Photo by Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times via The LA Times
A little bit of news that got lost during the Ultimate Fighter Season 14 conference call the other day was Dana White announcing the season would air for the first time on the FX network in the UK. The show will air on Thursday evenings less than 24 hours after the show airs on Spike TV in America which is significant for a couple of reasons: the previous TV deal for airing The Ultimate Fighter on FIVE USA (part of the Channel 5 network) meant UK fans had to wait until the following Tuesday to see the most recent episode, and the move to FX sees The Ultimate Fighter broadcast for the first time in High Definition. FX in the UK also benefits from being within the first 30 channels structured on the Sky Digitial Satellite platform (channel number 124, where 101 is the first channel available) making it relatively easy to find compared to FIVE USA (channel number 174) in the Entertainment section.
With such a quick turnaround in getting a new deal for TUF to air in the UK that works out better for the fans, the Fox-UFC partnership continues to pay dividends early on. But what does this have to do with UFC coverage possibly moving from ESPN UK to Sky Sports in the future? For that we need only look at the career of David Hill, Chairman of Fox Sports.
Working for Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation in the 1980's, Hill helped launch Sky Television and Eurosport in the UK in 1988. In 1990 when Sky Television and British Sky Broadcasting merged, Hill became the head of sports programming and development and formed Sky Sports. For a sports network to succeed especially one on a premium subscription service Hill quickly realised the importance of securing broadcast rights to Premier League Football (Soccer), the most watched sport in the UK. Similarly Fox Sports success on the big Fox network and FX more than a decade later hinged on securing broadcast rights for the NFL. In other words the success and lessons learned with Sky Sports then has helped with the success of the Fox Sports division now.
The Sky platform is still part owned by Rupert Murdoch - his son James Murdoch is the current Chairman of Sky - who recently tried to acquire full control of Sky in a buyout because of the millions of pounds profit it had been generating. As of April 2011 Sky's operating profit for the business year had risen 24% to £790 million - about $1.23 Billion.
Owning a respectable 39.1% slice Murdoch's attempted takeover was thwarted when his public and business image took a pounding from the Phone Hacking and News of the World scandal with repercussions and consequences still emerging now.
David Hill is still one of Murdoch's right hand men in the Television Media world and with UFC's desire to work with Fox globally a move to Sky Sports would make sense. Dana White also hasn't been shy about feeling slighted by ESPN America at times when it comes to minimal news coverage of the UFC even if the two entities seem to kiss and make up soon after a public falling out.
While the deal with ESPN UK in 2009 included full coverage of events that included The Ultimate Fighter, ESPN has since been scaling back its coverage by dropping future seasons of TUF and opting out of airing Versus cards - including the most recent one headlined by the UK's Dan Hardy in what many thought could be his last fight with the promotion in a do or die battle with Chris Lytle. Worse still due to a technology issue with the digital 'freeview' platform live UFC events watched on ESPN outside of Sky, Virgin Media and BT Vision would be cut short when the service shut down at 5am local time - just 2 hours after a UFC event would typically start until the most recent decision to start UFC events an hour earlier stateside.
Sky Sports has had 20 years to establish itself as the dominant sports destination in the UK with ESPN trying to play catch up but combined with the entertainment channels Sky offers including it's flagship channel Sky One in addition to FX, Sky has more resources to help the UFC grow in the UK. If we're already seeing cross-promotion of the UFC via segments during NFL and MLB games on Fox it stands to reason Sky Sports is capable of offering similar cross-promotion with its Soccer, Rugby, Cricket and Tennis coverage.
UFC has attempted to work with Sky in the past though, having some old programming air on Sky Sports in the run up to UFC 38: The Brawl At The Albert Hall in 2002 that aired on the Sky Box Office Pay Per View platform. A disappointing buy rate combined with a Zuffa run UFC that was still three years away from its break through first season of The Ultimate Fighter lead to UFC coverage being dropped and bounced around other PPV outlets or as a tape delayed option on second tier entertainment channels such as the now defunct Bravo (the UK Bravo having no relation to the US Bravo) before finally landing with the ill-fated Setanta Sports and then on to upstart ESPN UK. While Sky Sports had been in negotiations for UFC coverage when Setanta Sports went into receivership it was speculated that the WWE's presence on Sky Sports as well as Sky Box Office PPV acted as a barrier for the UFC getting a deal done. But now UFC have a long term partnership with Fox we may see a deal get done with Sky when ESPN's broadcast rights are up next year.
Editorial Update: The Ultimate Fighter season 12 Team GSP vs Team Koscheck did air on Sky Sports 2 the following Tuesday, but the next season with Team Lesnar vs Team Dos Santos was not picked up by Sky Sports. A last minute deal was reached with ESPN UK to air the season.