One of the things I did want to touch on last week but never quite got around to was the supposed "competition" from the biggest mixed martial arts promotion on the planet getting their first taste of network television on Saturday night. For those who may live under a rock or simply don't care about the UFC, the promotion made their debut on FOX this past Saturday night, scoring solid ratings for a one-fight, heavyweight championship show that barely lasted a minute from bell to finish.
5.7 million viewers tuned in to see the fight between incoming champion Cain Velasquez and challenger Junior Dos Santos, and what they wound up getting was 64 seconds of action, ending when dos Santos landed a thudding overhand right off of Velasquez's temple, taking the UFC's heavyweight crown.
Now, the action, or lack thereof, is not what I'm most interested in here -- it's that 5.7 million, and the 3.1 household rating. A press release from FOX detailed that the show did very strong in its key demographics, or in other words, the exact audience that boxing still has great trouble reaching:
FOX Research projects that [Saturday] night's UFC on FOX premiere broadcast to win the 9:00-10:00 PM time period across key demos including Adults 18-34 (3.2), Adults 18-49 (3.0); Men 18-34 (4.3) and Men 18-49 (4.0) ... Among the Men 18-34 demographic, the UFC on FOX premiere posted a 4.3, strong enough to out-rate every college football telecast this season on any network with the exception of last week's No. 1 vs. No. 2 LSU-Alabama match-up (through 11/5).
That is very impressive.
What does this mean for boxing and everyone's alleged attempt to get back on network TV?
Boxing promoters love to say, when randomly asked, that they're totally working to get back on network TV. But as there are never any strong rumors, let alone actual deals, made by any of the promoters to get back on network TV, one is left to assume that they're pretty happy with the pay models from HBO and, to a lesser extent, Showtime, plus their massive pay-per-view revenues 2-to-3 times per year when Manny and Floyd come out to fight.
Smaller promoter Main Events has recently struck a deal with a network, though. Well, sort: New Jersey-based Main Events has cut a deal with NBC Sports, which will see fights aired on the Versus network (UFC has been there and done that, and so has boxing to no great effect) and some on NBC, though the latter part -- how it will work, what fights, etc. -- is a little more murky. Don't be utterly stunned if nothing ever actually winds up on the real NBC that carries "The Office" and your local news.
The Main Events/NBC Sports deal is set to begin on January 21, 2012. There will be a six-figure budget for the show, so more money for that than can go into a ShoBox (which airs at 11 p.m. on a Friday on a pay network anyway) or ESPN's Friday Night Fights, but a significantly less than goes into HBO's pay-per-views, World Championship Boxing, or Boxing After Dark, or Showtime's World Championship Boxing.
Will there be compelling fights on the Main Events series? If we pay attention to history with deals like this, you shouldn't hold your breath. Top Rank had a series on Versus that they turned into the Tye Fields Hour, gagging boxing fans with horrible fights. Outside of Fields' exhibitions of immobility, the only fight from the Top Rank series I can recall is the miserable mismatch between Ulises Solis and Will Grigsby in January 2007.
Of course, Versus did later strike gold working with Main Events, airing a tremendous cruiserweight championship fight in December 2008 between Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham. If they can build buzz with fights like that, it would be interesting to see where they go.
But back to those demographics.
Boxing doesn't have that audience. And the chances for anyone in boxing, even the power promoters like Top Rank and Golden Boy, to land a legitimate network TV deal like UFC has right now, depends on their ability to bring in the almighty advertising dollar as well as delivering a consistent audience. Boxing's demographics just plain skew older. UFC has done a fantastic job capturing the coveted 18-34 crowd. Boxing has not, and it's something that will continue to haunt them if anyone serious attempts to land a legitimate, fair deal on network TV.
Chance for growth
So the next question is not whether UFC can score strong numbers, but whether or not they can keep them. How much higher can they climb?
When mixed martial arts got its first regrettable shot at network TV back in 2009, it was boxing promoter Gary Shaw, his son Jared, and their pet project Kimbo Slice, who wasn't really a professional MMA fighter and nowadays is boxing on cards in Oklahoma.
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That EliteXC show on CBS drew about a million more viewers than the UFC's FOX debut, and that sort of leads me to wonder if the absolute peak, to date, for curious interest in "checking out" MMA has not passed. Are there as many would-be viewers out there who are willing to "check it out" as there were a few years ago? In other words, are we at a point where the majority of folks have made up their minds in one of the following ways:
- They're a fan of the sport.
- They're not a fan of the sport.
- They've got no interest in determining whether or not they are a fan of the sport.
The last one is the one they can change. If they can re-establish some buzz with the fights on FOX, they can once again gain new viewers, and start building their brand and their product even higher. The work that Dana White and Co., including their fighters, have done over the last decade is astounding. This went from the fringiest of fringe sports in the United States to a marketing force that has a network TV slot. That deserves all the praise in the world from a promotional standpoint.
I was rooting for the UFC to do well on network TV because of the crazy idea that their potential success could interest a rival network when it comes to looking into another combat sport. I will root for them to take the ball and run with it from here because of that, and because I'm a fan of mixed martial arts and would like to see them do well.
The great outside hope is that their success can somehow cross over into the boxing world, and that fighters of all stripes will enjoy greater exposure and popularity. But it is just an outside hope at this point. There remains plenty of work to be done on both sides, and we have to find out what UFC's staying power is, or if the 5.7 million on Saturday winds up being a number the company struggles to match for future events.