This Wednesday night, a major fight takes place in the UFC Welterweight division, as Jake Ellenberger faces Diego Sanchez. Winner could easily be next in line for a shot at Carlos Condit and the Interim title. It's also an exciting match-up between two dynamic fighters. So, cause for celebration, right? Sure - if you are one of the people who will actually be able to watch the fight.
Sanchez vs. Ellenberger headlines the UFC's debut on Fuel, and as we draw closer to the fight, the reality is beginning to set in - not everyone who wants to is going to be able to see this show. Fuel is currently in 36 million US homes. Compare that to the 96 million homes that have Spike and you see what a difference there is. Personally, my carrier doesn't offer Fuel. No one I know in my area has it. So I am left with an interesting dilemma - skip the show entirely or find some sort of unauthorized online stream. Why is the UFC forcing fans to make this decision? Why have they taken such a huge step backwards by going from Spike to Fuel?
The answer is obvious - the Fuel deal was part of their access to Fox. And there's no denying that running shows on Fox is a massive gain. But do those gains outweigh the negatives of the move to Fuel?
In the short term, there are two downsides to this move. The first is that less fans will see Ellenberger vs. Sanchez and the entire card Wednesday night. This is particularly problematic given the current Welterweight division. Jake Ellenberger is not a big name yet, and if this fight leads to a Condit vs. Ellenberger title fight, he needs the extra exposure that will be missing by being on Fuel. These free TV shows also typically serve in part as a hype show for the next PPV. With UFC 144 headlined by Frankie Edgar vs. Ben Henderson, a fight without a lot of casual fan interest, an extra push would again be a real benefit. So that's possibly two upcoming PPV's who could see a buyrate boost from this show, but could be ngatively impacted by lower viewership.
But to me, the bigger problem is in the long-term perception of UFC shows. Over the years, the company has done a great job conveying the feeling that every show is a Must See. Starting last year, they made every fight available to fans, again cultivating the kind of completist "I must watch it all" mentality that is so beneficial to an organization like the UFC. By making fans miss this show and subsequent Fuel programming, the UFC is in danger of reversing this message. There's no doubt that fans will miss this show. But the question is, over time, will this give the message that certain shows are indeed OK to miss? That every show is not in fact must see TV? That's a message casual fans already know, but if it gets into the heads of hardcore fans as well? That has the potential to be a serious long-term problem. And so far, it's not a problem the UFC has addressed publicly in any way.
Will low viewership Wednesday night cause them to reconsider hw they use Fuel programming? If it doesn't, it will be their loss - now and later.