Oh god. Now we're going to have this idiotic debate again. Sports Business Daily today reported that the UFC has signed a seven or eight year deal to air as many as four events a year on the Fox network. The deal represents "a major push into the mainstream for the UFC."
Oh yeah? From the sound of it, the UFC is merely porting its weekly cable content—The Ultimate Fighter show and free Fight Night cards featuring non-marquee fighters—from Versus and Spike to Fox. If that's the case and, as also reported, the programming airs on the Fox-owned cable channels FX and Fuel, how is this a major push into the mainstream? Are FX and Fuel that different from Versus and Spike? I have no idea where to find any of them in my channel lineup.
That's not to say that FX and Fuel and Spike and Versus aren't mainstream. Hell, cable is about as mainstream as it gets. The Long Tail is mainstream. There are MMA organizations all over the country, gyms in every major city. The UFC sells out arenas wherever it goes. Granted, the sport has still not been sanctioned in New York, thanks largely to the efforts of one crusading moralist, but at this point, you'd be hard pressed to find an American male between the ages of 18 and 35 who doesn't know something about MMA.
And yet we're supposed to believe that if only the sport could clear just a few more hurdles, it'd conquer the world. UFC president Dana White has said as much. He thinks MMA will be the biggest thing on the planet in 10 years. At least that's what he tells the planet, usually while announcing a new TV deal or an investment partner.
But let's assume the ceiling on MMA's growth is a few atmospheres below a moonshot. Maybe the stagnant ratings for UFC programming on Spike and Versus aren't representative of MMA's failure to crash the mainstream but rather some indication of the limits of the hoi polloi's appetites, especially in a cable and pay-per-view era. There was a time when boxing, the sport to which MMA is always compared, was the most popular diversion in all the land. But that was when all the land got to watch fights like Joe Louis versus Rocky Marciano for free on NBC. When you charge $50 for Tito Ortiz versus Rashad Evans on DirectTV channel 140, as the UFC did a few weeks ago, you abdicate the right to moan about how the mainstream keeps shutting you out.
So widely bruited is this notion of MMA as a start-up that it's beginning to feel like just another myth propped up by Dana White and company. Always struggling is White. Always battling, sometimes while flying through turbulence in his private jet. The UFC is a billion-dollar global business with major sponsors. It's no longer a fringe concern, at least not in the United States. But it can't hurt to convince people—especially not those with whom you negotiate—that your rogue sport has vast growth potential when, not if, you reach that Arcadia of the mainstream.
UFC Agrees To Deal With Fox That Will See Up To Four Events Per Year On Broadcast TV [Sports Business Daily]