The UFC is in its 2nd of a 7 year deal with the FOX networks, and so far things are on the up and up. Yesterday we told you that UFC on FX 7 was the highest rated UFC show in the channel's history, averaging over 1.85 million viewers. The preliminary card on FUEL TV pulled in 255,000 viewers, an all-time high for any content on FUEL. This following news that the season premiere of The Ultimate Fighter drew 1.5 million viewers, the highest in the FX era.
This is coming off of a rather inconsistent 2012, where the highs of the January and December FOX card ratings were mixed with the lows of the two terrible seasons of The Ultimate Fighter on FX and the May and August FOX shows. There have already been plenty of noticeable changes in the way that the UFC is presented on the FOX networks, and there are still more to come. If you're like me, you're more than excited with these tweaks:
1a.) Championship fight main events on FOX. When the UFC announced they were holding multiple annual events on network TV, fans were excited that there would be high-quality fights on free TV featuring names you would normally see on PPV. While the first two FOX cards definitely met that goal with a heavyweight title fight in November and Rashad Evans in January. Then came the May and August shows where, while the main cards were entertaining, there was a lack of star power, with the likes of Nate Diaz, Jim Miller, and Brandon Vera in non-title headlining fights. The ratings predictably suffered, and the allure of "#1 contender" simply wasn't working. Starting from FOX 5 in Seattle -- which peaked at 5.7 million viewers during the Ben Henderson vs. Nate Diaz title fight -- the UFC has booked three straight championship fights in the main event. While the UFC and/or FOX have not really attempted to push Johnson vs. Dodson and have essentially pushed Rampage Jackson's return against Glover Teixeira, you would have to think that FOX forced their hand in having Johnson/Dodson as the main event. Using "Championship Fight" is a surefire way of drawing in more eyeballs regardless of matchup, and the heavy advertising on FOX's NFL broadcasts have clearly been a major help. Whether that will continue in April at the start of baseball season remains to be seen.
1b.) Stacking the rest of the main card with young prospects and/or rising contenders. You've already seen Alexander Gustafsson, Rory MacDonald, and Johny Hendricks on FOX shows. Anthony Pettis, Glover Teixeira, Erik Koch, Daniel Cormier will appear soon. Many of these guys were pitted against former champions like B.J. Penn, Mauricio Rua, Josh Koscheck, and other familiar staples of PPV cards. The stronger the FOX main cards are, the better the ratings, and the better the ratings, the more exposure these promising talents receive.
2.) Switching UFC on FOX prelims from FUEL to FX. It is/was a colossal waste for the FOX preliminary card to be tossed to FUEL TV. The average viewership of the preliminary card shows on FUEL TV (from FOX 2, 3, and 4) was 141,000. UFC on FOX 5 drew 1.2 million viewers on FX, roughly 10 times the audience. It's easier to advertise the night's main card when your preliminary card isn't broadcast on a station with minimal reach.
3.) Higher quality cards on FUEL TV. If FOX wants FUEL TV in more homes nationwide, Wednesday cards where the co-main event is Amir Sadollah vs. Jorge Lopez or James Te-Huna vs. Joey Beltran will have neither the masses breaking down the doors of Comcast nor will it have Comcast in any mood to strike a deal to carry the channel on their digital packages across the country. So what has transpired? There's a title fight this February between Renan Barao and Michael McDonald on FUEL 7. In March, FUEL 8 has Wanderlei Silva in the main event, Mark Hunt vs. Stefan Struve in co-main, Diego Sanchez vs. Takanori Gomi and Hector Lombard vs. Yushin Okami. Now THAT screams "I need to get/carry this channel". I would rather these events not be on a channel I admittedly don't have, but in the interest of raising FUEL TV's profile, this is an excellent idea. Also, there seems to be a permanent Saturday rotation instead of the weekday-weekend mixes we saw last year. Along those lines of weekday content is the next change...
4.) Ending Friday night content of any sort. Friday night television is akin to the graveyard shift. Sports organizations in particular just do not put any major event on a Friday other than the NBA, and even then ESPN/ABC generally schedule their best national games on Sunday afternoon. The UFC ended up on Fridays for FX Fight Nights and The Ultimate Fighter. What was the end result? Of the 31 Friday UFC shows on FX -- 24 TUF episodes, 6 Fight Nights, 1 TUF Finale -- none of them averaged anything higher than 1.4 million viewers. Meanwhile, UFC on FX 7: Bisping vs. Belfort, held on a Saturday, nearly hit the 2 million mark. Could the ratings ballooning be a result of two well-known fighters headlining a free card? Certainly, but the move to Saturday is almost certainly the primary reason this was the most-watched UFC program on FX.
5.) Re-tooling The Ultimate Fighter. The woes of The Ultimate Fighter have been well-documented, and 2012 was a new low for the franchise. Record-low ratings, competitors clearly not suited to be in the UFC, unexciting coaches, and the dreaded Friday night slot was the perfect storm for disaster. The "new" version of TUF on Tuesday was a success. It's almost as if the show graduated from the borderline amateurish Spike TV era into a more mature stage produced by FX. This shouldn't be a surprise, as FX produces quality programming in multiple fields, whereas Spike TV has ... MANswers? Deadliest Warrior? While the 1.5 million average for season 17's premiere only pulls them to about the same level as the season 13 and 14 premieres on Spike, it's a major step in the right direction for a show that looked to be on life support. The big question remains whether or not the re-formatted production, presentation, new timeslot, and seemingly improved fighter cast will translate into sustainable success on a weekly basis. As cynical as I generally am, consider me optimistic for TUF even after just 1 episode.
There are still challenges ahead for the UFC and FOX, particularly how they'll handle the new sports channels set to launch in August. However, the end of 2012 and start of 2013 is an encouraging sign that this partnership is headed in a positive direction.