Past UFC on Fox events have drawn a lot of hand wringing because they failed to break the bank ratings-wise. Many MMA fans expected the UFC to take the sports world by storm and open eyes by racking up huge numbers - and then were sorely disappointed when the non-spectacular numbers came out. In essence, the UFC turned in average numbers for a sporting event and this should not have been unexpected. With the benefit of hindsight, it is ridiculous for MMA fans to have expected UFC events to turn in the same numbers as those of more commonplace prime-time and sporting events. The UFC is now officially competing on the biggest stage of sports and going up against sports that, in some cases, are over a century old. The fan bases and reach to the population at large that those sports command dwarfs MMA's small, but growing following.
The fact that UFC has made it this far is amazing in itself. This is the furthest any combat sport has come since the rise of boxing - which existed long before television or radio. So many other sports fail to reach the level of national recognition, but now the UFC has reached a point where future growth doesn't come in leaps and bounds. That growth comes by inches and small upticks in ratings. A timely mix of money, smart marketing, and a little luck is needed to gain those inches and upticks. In the past year, fans have been upset because the UFC hasn't put forward matches that seemed marketable, Fox hasn't put forward the advertising dollars and luck (injuries and/or the fights themselves) has seemed to be against these cards.
But this time, it appears both Fox and the UFC are fully determined to move their ratings forward. The UFC has put a title on the line and has selected an extremely entertaining champion in Benson Henderson and have given him the perfect and just as entertaining foil in Nate Diaz as the top billed match. Below that title fight, the UFC is putting forward several matches that are sure to draw eyeballs. However what is really telling is that the UFC and Fox have higher expectations for this card is the marketing campaign.
It was pointed out when the card was first announced that it was ideally placed towards the end of football season, which gave Fox basically all of the NFL season to plug the match. When originally scheduled, there was no major sporting event taking place this Saturday. Since then, Manny Pacquiao's fight with Juan Manuel Márquez has also been scheduled for that evening, but falling slightly later than the main event of the UFC show. This overlap is no fault of the UFC or Fox and they have stuck to the date, bringing their significant marketing powers to bear. The ads and video lead-ins have high production values and emphasizing the idea that a title is on the line. For much of the football season, the marketing campaign seemed like a pretty standard push for the card, but the volume has been significantly turned up in the last week.
A near constant stream of UFC ads came during the PAC 12 and Big 10 Championship games and during the NFL games, but Fox is giving this card a little something extra. On top of the Road to the Octagon special running on Fox, they are doing tie ins with other programming. During the football games this week Fox began running an ad that featured their major weekly sitcoms, highlighting moments of physical conflict and then having an ad for the fight card. They have tagged it as "Fox Fight Week, Presented by the UFC" and this is unlike any ad campaign the UFC has run before. Fox is mentioning the UFC during football games, during the halftime shows and Dana White even made a guest appearance on Rob Riggle's skit during a recent Fox pre-game show.
It really seems like the UFC and Fox are looking to really try to make this fight an event with their marketing and the success or failure of this event could have a lasting impact on their relationship. There cannot be give without getting. A return on this level of marketing investment is needed to demonstrate the UFC has the ability to continue to grow and pull in the average sports fan.
All the factors the two parties can control are in place: there has been a serious marketing push, the match ups are fan friendly with big names, and the timing of the event is still very nice. Even factors beyond their control seem to be headed their way, as the headline matches have remain intact with no match-busting injuries popping up. What helps even more is that the Pacquiao fight scheduled for the same night is one of the least compelling fights featuring the popular champion in years, as it is the fourth time he will face Marquez and everyone who follows boxing has heard everything they have to say about each other.
All the signs point to the ratings going up for this card - and if they don't, there will likely be a great deal of questions that need answering. If the interest in this card stays the same or even declines a little that could be taken as sign the UFC has already peaked. MMA will likely never degrade back into an underground and illegal sport, but on the other side of that coin is the fact that MMA cannot grow indefinitely. There has to be a stopping point for the growth - an asymptote, for those of us who remember high school math. The question of where that asymptote lies is literally worth millions or even billions of future dollars.
Now clearly a big bump in ratings would be a hugely positive sign for both parties, but even a slight increase should be taken as a positive. Neither side wants this partnership to fail and both are looking for ways to make this a successful venture. Once UFC on Fox 5 is over and done, the ratings, results and audience response will give fans and media some insight to how this UFC and Fox deal will continue to play out.