UFC pact reaches for new viewers

Fox and the Ultimate Fighting Championship are betting that mixed martial arts is ready for primetime.

The bell rang Nov. 12 on the first of four title matches that will air on Fox four times a year in primetime or latenight — a match pitting defending champ Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos in a 9 p.m. ET slot. But the full deal doesn’t kick in until January, a pact that places UFC programming across other Fox platforms such as FX, Fuel TV and Fox Sports Net. Six title matches and the series “Ultimate Fighter” will run on FX.

The seven-year deal with Fox will see UFC pulling a reported $90 million a year in media rights fees. Although that’s a fraction of the billions that baseball, football, hockey and basketball pull for broadcast rights, the figure dwarfs the $35 million in annual rights fees UFC wwas getting via its agreement with Spike TV.

The move by UFC to Fox shifts it away from a pay-per-view model, which delivered a per-event return of $10 million to $15 million in revenues, according to the SportsBusiness Daily.

“When you think about how big UFC has gotten in the last 10 years, we’ve never been on a sports network. We’re ready for primetime,” says UFC president Dana White.

UFC sees the deal with Fox as a way to continue to grow its core 18-to-34-year-old demo, while reaching out into a broader spectrum of new fans.

To bolster ratings, Fox used a heavy rotation of promotions for UFC on Fox, including regular spots during NFL, NASCAR and October’s World Series. Fox Sports Media Group chair David Hill says that UFC on Fox will be given the same promotional weight as all other programming within the group.

Fox will continue to use UFC for production, but given the jump to broadcast television for the major title fights, more background will be offered to fans not previously exposed to the sport. White added that there will be more “storytelling” and explanation of how the sport works than pay-per-view broadcasts have seen.

The Nov. 12 hoopla included a two-hour preview and red carpet special on News Corp.-owned Fuel TV before the bout, co-hosted by Jay Glazer and Kenny Florian, with an eye toward reaching out to new fans to UFC programming. Fox Deportes carried a Spanish feed, with additional exposure on Fox Sports Radio and FoxSports.com. Fuel TV aired live weigh-ins the day before the bout, as well as a post-fight special.

The size and scope of the multiplatform deal with a league is unusual, and will call to bear the oversight talents of Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks and Fuel TV general manager George Greenberg. “There’s no guidebook,” notes Hill. “We’re finding our way.”

If there are still are still concerns about the violent nature of MMA coming to broadcast television, Fox and UFC played it down.

“I don’t think there will be any backlash at all. I feel the dramatic growth of the sport, not only in America, but around the world, has moved UFC from a niche to a mainstream sport, which is why we were so pleased to work with them,” says Hill.

Asked if any parental discretion advisory warnings might be presented, the Fox exec quips, “Yes. We’ll tell viewers to not try this at home.”

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