As discussed earlier here at Bloody Elbow, the UFC on FUEL TV 5: Struve vs. Miocic ratings are in and the news isn't particularly good. Only 111,000 viewers tuned in live for the event, with the replay pulling 140,000 later that evening.
The number is a function of many things, from a headliner that, while exciting, wasn't casual fan friendly in terms of "big names" to an afternoon slot that fight fans just aren't used to on a network that only has so many actual carriers. But I'm less interested in the number itself than I am in the reaction to it and meaning it carries.
Ultimately, I think one of the biggest issues with the UFC on Fuel cards is the UFC's treatment of the shows as still being "major events." Yes, there is a distinction between the "numbered events" and a show hosted on Fuel, but the UFC holds on tightly to the idea that every time they come to your town, it's a major event, despite that it just isn't true with every card.
This past weekend's show was entertaining, it had local flavor and did feature "ranked fighters." But it was also given the hard sell as a bigger deal than it was. So when the numbers come back and they look horrible, it makes things seem much more dire than they realistically are.
In spite of the constant use of terms like "oversaturation" in describing why the UFC's numbers have seen a downward trend (and they have), they key to improving the Fuel TV experience may very well be in more shows on the network, not less.
I've said it in the past, but an approach similar to ESPN 2's Friday Night Fights may be a huge boost to the network and it's UFC content. Weekly shows that aren't built to be "major events" but are a place where young fighters can get Octagon time, be showcased and develop their skills. And it should be weekly or bi-weekly for at least 5-6 months out of the year.
One issue with the Fuel shows is that no one watches the network so they're not bombarded with ads that a show is coming up that weekend. With shows every 1-2 weeks, fans know that they can turn the TV on every Thursday (I think that'd be the ideal night) and get live UFC fights.
You're never going to attract a million viewers to Fuel, but if you can get a base that constantly tunes in and do 120-150k every week for a Friday Night Fights style broadcast, there's nothing bad about that number assuming you are treating the cards as what they really are.
This would also allow the promotion to take risks and sign a lot of guys for one fight "tryouts." Quite frankly, given the disaster that are the ratings for The Ultimate Fighter, those guys might benefit a lot more from getting single fight contracts for a weekly Fuel show than they are being tied into a failure of a reality show.
A guy like Charlie Brenneman could be re-signed to a single fight deal as an opponent to a prospect, knowing that he could successfully play gatekeeper and find himself with renewed interest and a new deal from the promotion.
The possibilities are endless and the refocus on what the shows are, along with the retraining of fans and media on expectations as far as ratings go, would turn the Fuel shows into a better vehicle for fighters at that current level of their career. And it would allow the UFC to stop wasting guys like Struve and Weidman in fights that just aren't going to be seen.
Where oversaturation becomes an issue is when every fight is pitched as "must see" and this would move the focus to a much more realistic view of the cards: that they provide good action while not being treated as the absolute best of the best, in fights that are must-see, and you can't miss.
The real issue with this all is if the egos of everyone involved with the UFC will allow anything to be treated as anything less than a major show with huge ramifications.