Expectations were high when the UFC left its longtime broadcast home on Spike TV and began its relationship with FOX back in January of 2012. It was heralded by many as a landmark deal that would help take the company to the next level.
In reality 2012 turned out to be a mixed bag for the UFC. Although they were exposed to a larger audience than ever thanks to four specials that aired on the FOX network, the bulk of UFC programing was placed on FOX's cable properties FX and FUEL TV. While FUEL was an obscure station that wasn't expected to draw big ratings, FX is stronger than Spike TV. Ostensibly numbers should have gone up from where they were in previous years.
That wasn't the case though. Instead, viewership for the UFC's Ultimate Fighter reality series plummeted 35% from the 2011 average on Spike (see this article for in an in-depth look at all UFC viewership numbers for 2012). Ratings for the UFC's newly minted UFC On FX series were also disappointing vis a vis Spike's comparable UFC Fight Night series. Viewership was down 40% for UFC on FX compared with Fight Night.
Clearly things hadn't turned out quite as rosy as many had projected during year one of the UFC and FOX relationship.
These less than spectacular numbers were attributed in some circles as a series of growing pains necessary to establish the UFC brand on FX. "It takes time to establish yourself on a new network," went the rationalization trotted out by many who attempted to explain away the UFC's falling viewership in 2012.
That line of thinking was blown out of the water when the UFC pulled in monster ratings for its debut on the newly minted FOX Sports 1 a little over a week and a half ago on Saturday, August 17. That show, which reverted back to the old Fight Night moniker, did 1.78 million average viewers and peaked with 2.27 million viewers for the main event featuring Chael Sonnen vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. That was enough to make UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen the second most watched show since the move to FOX in 2012. What makes these numbers even more remarkable is that the UFC wasn't just jumping networks again, they were moving to a station that didn't exist the day before the event was broadcast.
Kind of puts the lie to the whole "it takes time for people to find a new network" excuse, doesn't it?
The major takeaway from the August 17 number is that UFC fans will actively seek out a card they are interested in no matter where it is on their cable dial. As a logical corollary, UFC on FX ratings were likely low throughout 2012 because the promotion just wasn't putting together cards that captured the public's imagination.
Which is what makes the ratings for this Wednesday's Ultimate Fight Night: Condit vs. Kampmann such an interesting story to watch. Condit vs. Kampmann is a hot match from an in-cage talent perspective but neither possesses the marquee value of a Sonnen or a Shogun. Will the UFC be able to maintain the momentum from the stacked August 17 show, or will viewership be down to the usual FX levels going forward?
Two other things to look out for are the numbers for this coming Saturday's UFC 164 card headlined by lightweight champion Benson Henderson vs. Anthony Pettis and next week's Ultimate Fight Night: Teixeria vs. Bader show. As 2012's massively expanded schedule demonstrated, audience burnout is a very real concern when it comes to the UFC putting on a number of cards in a short period of time. Will UFC fans be less inclined to fork over $50 to see the Henderson/Pettis rematch when it's bookended by two strong free cards on FS1 within a few days of Saturday's PPV? It's a legit possibility, especially given Henderson's history as a PPV headliner.
Henderson's last couple lightweight title bouts have been broadcast on FOX, most likely in large part because he drew a measly 190,000 buys for his rematch with Frankie Edgar at UFC 150. Under normal circumstances this Saturday's show would be a great proving ground to see if that FOX exposure has helped turn him into a bigger draw, but it's perhaps unfair to Henderson to count a poor number for UFC 164 against him considering the abundance of live UFC fights over the next eight days. Then again if UFC 164 does a great buyrate it will speak volumes on the efficacy of Henderson's FOX fights in terms of making him a star.
Another story to keep a close eye on is how the upcoming Team Rousey vs. Team Tate season of TUF does on FS1. TUF ratings were so abysmal in 2012 that the UFC made the call to slot Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as coaches last season in an attempt to shock some life back into the flatlining show. Ratings improved to acceptable levels at 1.3 million average viewers for season 17, thanks in large part to a strong season finale that did 1.71 million viewers, but it was far from a homerun. Since the Shogun vs. Sonnen show already proved that UFC fans are willing to tune into programing on FS1, viewership numbers for the upcoming season 18 should give us a pretty clear indication of how much gas the long running reality show has left in the tank.
While there's still ample time for things to change before the first of next year, viewership patterns over this next week should give us a good preliminary indication what the new normal is in terms of UFC viewership on FS1. This time around there won't be any excuses if the UFC under-performs in the ratings. On the other hand if ratings stay strong, or even well above the no doubt still-low station average on FS1 at this stage in the game, it will be a huge feather in the UFC's cap as they grow into their relationship with FOX.