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UFC deal a major play for Fox networks

FX to air mixed martial arts on 32 Fridays

The seven-year deal Ultimate Fighting Championship has signed with Fox Sports Media Group will bring the fast-rising sport its biggest presence on broadcast television to date.

But while the four live events airing on Fox each year will grab headlines, the impact on cablers FX and lesser-known Fuel TV could be transformative.

Starting in the spring, FX will air UFC programming on 32 Friday nights per year, turning a relative dead zone for the cabler (filled mainly with film and TV repeats) into a vibrant magnet for its primary demo. Fuel, meanwhile, will give more than a third of its primetime schedule to mixed martial arts coverage when the deal formally goes into effect Jan. 1.

Spanish-language sibling Fox Deportes will also take on a significant portion of UFC content.

“It’s a deal that touches all aspects of the Fox Media Group,” said Fox Sports Media Group prexy Eric Shanks at the gathering where the official announcement was made Thursday. “I don’t know if you could weigh which part is best.”

Fox’s UFC coverage will begin with a live bout Nov. 12, which happens to be the night of an HBO-distributed pay-per-view broadcast of a Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez boxing bout, and continue with one live event each quarter.

“This is what I always wanted,” said UFC prexy Dana White. “This is what I always felt was the pinnacle for us here in the United States.”

The UFC-FSMG deal formally goes into effect next year, at which point the broader impact unfolds.

Unscripted series “The Ultimate Fighter” will air in spring and fall 13-week cycles on FX, in a new format. For the first 12 weeks, an hour’s worth of recently recorded footage, edited in reality-show style, will be followed by 30 minutes of live fight coverage. And in a nod to modern-day viewer interaction, fans will vote by text message on which bouts they want to see. Week 13 will offer an all-live season finale.

The remaining six Friday broadcasts on FX will be live “Fight Nights,” further enticing the core FX audience. FX prexy and g.m. John Landgraf cited research showing an 80% overlap of fans of UFC and those who watch FX.

“Both the UFC and FX have enjoyed explosive growth in the past 10 years,” Landgraf said. “We’re not an emerging network anymore, and they’re not an emerging sport.”

FX exec veep Chuck Saftler said the network expects to grow the million-plus adults in the 18-49 demo that the UFC has drawn on cable in the past.

“Sports has been a critical component that we’ve wanted to add to FX,” Saftler said. “Our median age is 37 — with the young males (that UFC attracts), it will probably bring the male age down a bit.”

For its part, the bread and butter of UFC (owned by Las Vegas-based Zuffa) will remain pay-per-view, but the parties involved agreed that the combination of distribution outlets for the sport would accelerate demand for it on all fronts.

“That’s the yin and the yang with pay-per-view,” Shanks said. “Our agreement is not to infringe on pay-per-view. We’ll scratch each other’s backs as much as we can.”

Demand for the sport was such that at one point, there was talk of a dedicated UFC cable network — including the possibility that Fuel would undergo that reconfiguration.

“At the end of the day, we just looked at everything that was on the table and felt that this license structure just made a lot of sense,” said UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta. “But we sat down, thought about it a little bit and said, ‘You know what we do best? We put on great fights.’ We’re not in the business of running a network. And as far as the life cycle of the company and where we’re at, it just made more sense for us to do this deal with Fox.”

Though some specifics are still being worked out, Fuel exec veep and g.m. George Greenberg said to expect primetime UFC coverage (including preliminary bouts and rebroadcasts of material from other FSMG networks) to begin at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays.

“Fuel already has a heavy male demographic,” Greenberg said, noting that UFC will mix very well with motorcross, surfing and other action sports on the cabler.

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