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What's the Deal With UFC Primetime Running on ESPN2?

Dana White and Joe Rogan fooling around at the Spike TV Video Games Awards. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/ via Getty Images)
Dana White and Joe Rogan fooling around at the Spike TV Video Games Awards. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/ via Getty Images)

We've reported extensively on the UFC's poor ratings on Spike TVI even irresponsibly speculated on the possibility that Spike was deliberately "spike-ing" the UFC's programming to give them more leverage in the final year of the UFC's current contract. 

The recent appearance of the UFC 129 Primetime special featuring Georges St. Pierre and Jake Shields on ESPN2, especially in the aftermath of the series' worst-ever ratings on Spike is more significant than it might appear at first. MMA Mania reports

In news that flew way under the radar, the second episode of UFC Primetime, featuring Georges St. Pierre and Jake Shields, aired on ESPN2 on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, at 11 p.m. ET.

That's a full hour before it aired on Spike TV.

When asked to comment on why the show was shown on ESPN2, Dana White told he put it on ESPN for more eyeballs and more distribution. And while there is no broadcast deal in place with "The Worldwide Leader," the final episode of Primetime will also air on "The Deuce" next Wednesday at 11 and 11:30 p.m. ET. 

...Is a ratings war (and potential bidding war) brewing between ESPN and Spike, facilitated by UFC?

Zach Arnold commented:

There are two schools of thought about the reason this move was done. The first school of thought (by Robert Joyner) is that ESPN2 needed some filler programming and decided to air the broadcast. Given what has happened with the indictments last Friday with the major online poker operations and the television programs those companies sponsored, ESPN has found itself in a position where they are airing some poker programming and not airing other poker programming. For a last-minute emergency program, you could do a lot worse than airing a UFC infomercial. Robert also thinks that it could be a sign of ESPN/Disney warming up to UFC. The counter-argument to that is that if they were warming up and becoming buddy-buddy, you would think they would give a lot more advance warning in terms of airing this Primetime series.

The second school of thought (from yours truly and most other MMA writers) is that this was either a barter deal or a time-buy. If that is the case, what would be the motive? The first thought that comes to mind is that this was a tactical strike against Spike TV for what they perceive right now the network is doing in terms of promoting their television shows. Remember, we've seen this song-and-dance before when UFC decided to do a time-buy with ION to air PPV preliminary fights. It wasn't a big success but it wasn't a big failure, either. ESPN2/Disney is certainly a step up from ION in that regards. Call it brinkmanship, I suppose. If it is another flare between UFC & Spike TV, it certainly ups the ante in regards to what the relationship is like between the two parties.

The other part of the second school of thought is that this was a time-buy done out of precaution for the upcoming UFC 129 PPV. There are going to be over 50,000 fans at the Sky Dome/Rogers Centre in Toronto for this event. It is going to be a Wrestlemania-type atmosphere and historic. And, yet, as Geno Mrosko points out, something feels... strange... about the enthusiasm level heading into this event as far as buying it on PPV is concerned. There shouldn't be, given that GSP is the #2 PPV draw in the UFC (only behind Brock Lesnar). The card also features what appears to be Randy Couture's retirement fight (against Lyoto Machida). It features a solid bout between Mark Hominick and Jose Aldo. So, the PPV numbers should be good, right? I can't imagine that the internal estimates for Zuffa heading into this PPV are low, but maybe they know something we don't on that front? UFC announced on Wednesday night that all UFC 129 prelims will be streamed on their Facebook page.)

MMA Payout added:

The internet was a-twitter last night when UFC Primetime appeared on the "Deuce" without prior notice. It seems strange that there was no lead-up seeing as the UFC's intent was to produce more viewers to the show. Is this the equivalent of a product "soft launch"? Doesn't the same night airing of its series cannibalize ratings on Spike TV? Ratings will be interesting to compare the first two weeks on Spike TV versus next week's airing on ESPN2.

It's all way above my pay grade, but it certainly appears that something is going on with the UFC relationship with Spike TV.  The UFC has enormous latitude to promote their PPV events on channels outside of Spike TV so maybe they'd be doing this anyway even if their contract wasn't up for renewal.