Just under a month from now the UFC will debut on its third cable network in as many years with UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen on Fox Sports 1. It's no secret that the UFC's deal with Fox has not been the Earth-shattering success story that some anticipated.
Ratings for the four annual shows on Fox's broadcast network have been solid, if unspectacular but the UFC's odyssey on Fox's cable stations has been anything but a victory tour. The Ultimate Fighter flopped on FX and that hugely successful network (99 million homes, comparable to Spike but with much better ratings) didn't really want sports or reality show programming cluttering up its brand and very profitable airtime.
FX's little sister channel Fuel was thrilled with the ratings its UFC programming brought but Fuel's limited viewership (36 million homes) meant it was a huge drop-off from Spike TV for the UFC.
So now the long-term plan that Fox and the UFC had in mind is finally coming to fruition. The UFC will be anchor programming for Fox's attempt to challenge ESPN: Fox Sports 1. The plan was for FS 1 to debut with ~90 million homes but it's not that simple.
Sports Business Journal reports how things are getting tangled up:
A month before launching its much publicized all-sports network, Fox has yet to cut carriage deals with three of the country's four biggest distributors, raising the possibility that its August launch of Fox Sports 1 will fall short of the 90 million homes the channel is expected to have.
DirecTV, Dish Network and Time Warner Cable - representing more than 46 million subscribers - still are negotiating to carry FS1 on Aug. 17, which is when Fox will turn its motorsports channel, Speed, into a multisport network.
The fact that so many deals are open a month before a network launch is not unusual in the cable industry. Typically, carriage deals like FS1's get finalized in the days leading up to or just after a channel's launch.
Dave Meltzer explains a little more in the Wrestling Observer (subscription required):
It's not as bad as it sounds right now because a lot of times, these deals aren't finalized until the last minute. The belief is that cable distributors were paying about 23 cents per subscriber for The Speed Channel, which is turning into FS 1. Fox is looking for an increase with contracts that start at 80 cents per subscriber, but grow to $1.50 per subscriber within a few years. If you multiply those numbers by 90-100 million, that's the kind of carriage revenue they are hoping the new station can deliver. A lot of systems thought they would be able to maintain the 23 cents level with the change, at least until their contracts expire. Apparently Fox isn't allowing that. But if any of those key distributors don't carry the channel, while actual ratings won't be affected, total viewership numbers would, This would hurt UFC with the reach of its TV shows. While it is unlikely it would work out like this, right now based on deals in place Ultimate Fighter and the Countdown shows, may have a far more limited exposure level than first anticipated. And they still have to get viewers used to watching an unfamiliar channel.
It's not just the network's reach that has some pundits concerned. Their editorial approach may be problematic as well. Here's how their Robert Gottlieb, Fox Sports senior vice-president for marketing, describes their journalistic vision:
...the message is that it's time for sports to be fun again. There's the perception that sports and sports television has gotten too corporate and fans ultimately want to come for fun. The fun of the great comeback, the fun of performances that we will never forget that give you goose bumps. It's not about steroids, Tim Tebow and other BS that keep getting crammed down our throat. So for FOX Sports 1, it's in our DNA. We make things more fun, more colorful and more vivid and that's our position of what we are promising to viewers. Fans want an alternative.
Some are not thrilled about that vision. Here's Jeremy Botter:
It's no secret that the UFC has issues with performance-enhancing drugs. From marijuana (which is not a performance enhancing drug, but that's neither here nor there) to the endless debate surrounding testosterone replacement therapy, it often feels like drug scandals are never more than a stone's throw away.
The UFC generally stays away from mentioning drug failures on broadcasts, and you can't blame the promotion. But it seems to me, and perhaps I'm off here, that Fox Sports 1 plans on taking the same tact.
It'll be the home of the UFC. Does that mean it'll gloss over news that isn't beneficial to the UFC or its roster of fighters? Will it pretend that the latest drug test failure didn't actually happen at all?
Zach Arnold piles on:
Right now, all sports league have drug problems. However, the UFC & MMA in general has a really bad drug culture. From pain killers to testosterone to diuretics, combat sports right now is as dirty as horse racing and track & field. The UFC is the face of this problem in Mixed Martial Arts, given how many high-profile names are testosterone users and are not punished for such drug usage. When a drug scandal rocks the UFC in the future, and it will soon enough, how will Fox Sports 1 handle the situation? What will the critics of ESPN, looking for an alternative sports network with gravitas, think then?
If we are to gather how serious a network Fox Sports 1 will be, then it's fair to say that the recent hirings the network has made will give us a clue as to what ‘alternative' means. They have Jay Onrait & Dan O'Toole from TSN for comedy. They have their own college football version of Skip Bayless, mind you a more polished & presentable version, in Clay Travis. And then there are the impending flood of ESPN refugees like No-Charissa-ma Thompson & Mike Hill. Will these personalities be heavy hitters when it comes to handling major sports stories like drug scandals, given the current philosophy of Fox Sports management?
When Fox Sports talks about being an ‘alternative' to ESPN, most people assume that they will aim to be a sports network with a more serious, cutting, biting programming philosophy. Instead, it appears that they are going to go for the Michelle Beadle playbook. Beadle, the former host of Sportsnation, never believed in taking sports seriously and always felt that sports coverage needed a strong tie-in with pop culture. After she left Sportsnation, she went to NBCSN for Olympics coverage but has now moved onto Access Hollywood and hosting episodes of Breaking Amish on TLC. I kid you not.
Frankly I think it's naive to expect the UFC's broadcast partner to provide any more of a critical perspective than Spike TV did. The UFC would not be comfortable with that kind of coverage and I honestly don't think the UFC fan base cares much.
However, given the reality that ESPN basically won't cover MMA because they don't have an ownership interest in the sport means that very little critical coverage will happen at all which means festering problems like PEDs and fighter under-payment won't be addressed until they're potentially sport-killing issues.
The UFC debuts on FS 1 with UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs Sonnen on August 17.