UFC 235 was billed as the promotion’s biggest event thus far in 2019, and while we won’t know pay-per-view buys for a little while longer, the preliminary card broadcast on ESPN proved to be a smash hit.
According to Nielsen numbers, the two-hour broadcast — really it’s 1 hour and 45 minutes because the college basketball lead-in ran over its timeslot — averaged 1.48 million viewers, the strongest for any UFC preliminary card PPV since UFC 207: Nunes vs. Rousey in 2016. It also drew a 0.63 rating, good for #1 among all cable programming (which excludes ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX) on Saturday.
Of significant note here is that the aforementioned college basketball game between North Carolina and Clemson did average 1.69 million viewers, but the rating was 0.51, meaning the ratings improved when the UFC came on the air. This is different from previous basketball lead-ins, including both Duke vs. Virginia games preceding UFC preliminary card specials.
MMA Fighting’s Dave Meltzer has a more detailed breakdown:
The UFC prelims were the second most-watched sports event in its Saturday night time slot behind the Golden State Warriors vs Philadelphia 76ers NBA game on ABC, which did 3,631,000 viewers. The other significant competition head-to-head, AAF football on there NFL network, did only 409,000 viewers.
Even though the North Carolina vs. Clemson lead-in had more overall viewers, that was due to a huge difference, an 0.81 to 0.49 ratings edge among viewers over the age of 50. UFC beat its lead-in in all demos under the age of 50 aside from teenage girls.
The UFC prelims were the highest rated show on cable television Saturday night in Males 12-34, 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54, as well as overall in 12-34, 18-34, tied for first in 18-49 and second in 25-54.
The peak rating of 1.65 million viewers came for the Diego Sanchez win over Mickey Gall, coming off the end of the basketball game, but the number stayed strong though the Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Jeremy Stephens headliner.
As we found out with UFC 234, a strong preliminary card number on ESPN doesn’t necessarily mean strong PPV sales. But for UFC 235, it might be a different story. So far, year one of the UFC-ESPN partnership couldn’t be off to a stronger start. Outside of the ESPN2 prelims for UFC Prague, every live UFC broadcast on ESPN has eclipsed 1 million viewers.
It should be noted that the UFC 236 prelims on April 13th will have the NBA playoffs as a lead-in, so you can expect that to also have a massive rating and strong viewership when that night arrives.