SBJ/Oct. 14-20, 2013/In Depth

UFC shuffles its way to a home on FS1

On the first Sunday of the NFL season, four days after “The Ultimate Fighter” launched to the lowest debut-night rating of its history, Fox Sports used the most valuable promotional real estate in its portfolio to do what Fox Sports does best:

Yell a little louder.

Fox plugged “The Ultimate Fighter” during its NFL pregame show. It plugged it during its regionally televised games. And then, during a San Francisco 49ers-Green Bay Packers showdown that drew an average of 28.5 million viewers, the largest audience ever for a season-opener on Fox, it plugged the show some more.

Fox has made UFC programming such as “The Ultimate Fighter” an anchor on Fox Sports 1.
Photo by: Getty Images
NFL fans who went into the afternoon anticipating a showdown between Colin Kaepernick and Aaron Rodgers came out of it with a newfound awareness of Team Rousey vs. Team Tate.

The result of all that promotion was something well short of a viewer stampede to Fox Sports 1. Week 2 of “The Ultimate Fighter 18” was up only slightly over the debut, rising from 762,000 to 870,000. The next two episodes pulled audiences of 639,000 and 778,000, respectively.

You could point to a number of reasons that the show hasn’t caught fire this season. But it’s clearly not because Fox hasn’t let mainstream sports fans know it’s on.

“We launch ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ it comes in with a couple of hundred thousand viewers, and what do they do?” UFC President Dana White asked rhetorically during a conversation at the UFC’s Las Vegas headquarters. “You watched Fox NFL on Sunday, and every promotion was geared toward ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ That’s what [the UFC-Fox marriage] has been like.

“People have heard me say it a million times. Being in business with these guys is incredible.”

Taking some hits early

Had you seen White in the bowels of Philips Arena in Atlanta hours before Jon “Bones” Jones successfully defended his light heavyweight title there 18 months ago, you would have expected him to be less than complimentary about the company’s move from Spike TV to Fox in early 2012.

White had arrived at the arena that afternoon, rather than days earlier, as had been his custom for years. To get “The
Ultimate Fighter” on FX, the UFC agreed to move it to Friday night, a brutal proposition for an old-school fight promoter like White, who as the face of the UFC likes to spend the week of a big event making noise around the host city.

White had to be in Las Vegas for “The Ultimate Fighter” each Friday night during the show’s 13-week run, so he couldn’t spend the week in Atlanta. Worse yet, he arrived there in the midst of a globe-crossing trek that would take him from Vegas to Stockholm, to Abu Dhabi, back to Vegas for “The Ultimate Fighter,” then on to Atlanta, then Miami, then Rio de Janeiro, then Los Angeles and back to Vegas again for another taping of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

Though the Friday night slot was accomplishing what FX wanted, breathing life into one of its weaker nights, “The Ultimate Fighter” was getting a smaller audience than it did when it aired midweek on Spike. UFC executives worried all along that they would struggle to get their core audience of 18-34s to stay home on a Friday night. That appeared to be what was happening. The schedule also was making it difficult for White to play the role he’d always played promoting the pay-per-view events, which remain the UFC’s core business.

“Friday night isn’t really working for us,” White confided before heading out to watch Jones fight 18 months ago. “We’re trying but, yeah, it’s created a lot of problems.”

Rather than bemoaning the move, or blaming Fox executives and their scheduling wheel for the property’s struggles, White insisted he was optimistic that they would work it out. “The guys at Fox get it,” he said. “We’re working on it and we’re going to figure it out. You watch. We’ll figure it out.”

White knew FX was open to a change of nights, and that executives at Fox Sports would push for it on the UFC’s behalf if they thought that it was eroding the sport’s core audience. With fights on Fox, Fox Sports Net and the since-dismantled Fuel TV, the network had too much tied up in the sport to let it stumble out of the gate.
But White also knew something that no one was saying publicly at the time.

In one of the first rights negotiation meetings that he and UFC owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta had with Fox Sports co-presidents Eric Shanks and Randy Freer, midway through 2011, White told the network heads that he envisioned FX as the ideal home for “The Ultimate Fighter.” Shanks countered that he could see that, but that if it didn’t go there, Fox would place it on another well-positioned cable channel with similar distribution.

“What would that be?” Lorenzo Fertitta asked. “You don’t have any other channel like that.”

Not yet, Shanks said. But one was in the pipeline. He laid out the network’s plan to take two of its niche sports channels — Speed and Fuel — and remake them into Fox Sports 1 and 2, a pair of broader sports channels that would compete with ESPN.

FS1 would not start out with the audience reach or profile of FX, but it would put the UFC on a sports channel, alongside other Fox properties, most notably the NFL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR.

“That was a big selling point for us,” Fertitta said, recalling the meeting that tilted the UFC away from Comcast, which had been its early favorite, and toward Fox. “We always knew that, in order to reach our full potential, we had to be on a real sports platform. Not to take anything away from Spike. They were the right place at the right time. But we felt like we outgrew that and we wanted to be on a sports network.

“When they told us we were going to be one of the four pillars, with football, Major League Baseball and NASCAR, that’s when it started to become appealing for us. To be in that group is really what sold us. It was kind of like, ‘OK, we’ve arrived.’”

Channel surfing

Arrived at the overarching Fox family? For sure. But arrived at a single destination? Not at the outset.

As Fox executives worked to move the pieces into place to launch FS1, the UFC dealt with a checkerboard programming schedule that may have exposed it to more viewers, but also confused the fans it already had.

“The Ultimate Fighter,” which is the UFC’s signature property, resided at FX. Live fights aired on FX and Fuel. Studio shows, magazine shows and archived fights landed mostly on Fuel and also on the Fox regional sports networks.

The UFC drove growth for the networks. FX’s numbers in key demos were up massively on Friday nights thanks to the UFC. Boosted by more than 2,000 hours of UFC programming, Fuel more than doubled its viewership, making it the fastest-growing network on cable last year. At the same time, the UFC’s audience for its most important programming outside of its pay-per-views declined.

Pay-per-view preliminary fights, which averaged 1.4 million viewers for 12 shows in the final year on Spike, fell to a 1.26 million average for 21 shows on FX. “The Ultimate Fighter” went from 1.5 million viewers in its Spike swan song to 1 million in its first season on Friday night on FX and then 910,000 in its second season.

“I wouldn’t say it didn’t work, but it wasn’t as efficient as it should be, and at its worst it was confusing,” said Lawrence Epstein, chief operating officer of the UFC. “Even in here, this is what we do all day and people here weren’t always sure whether we were on FX or Fuel on a given night.”

After that first season, FX dumped the live fights that were complicating White’s travel schedule, but it kept “The Ultimate Fighter” on Friday night. When the show’s audience plummeted to 910,000, Fox had seen enough. It moved the show from Friday night to Tuesday night last spring. There, it posted an average audience of 1.32 million.

At season’s end, Fox announced that “The Ultimate Fighter” and the rest of its UFC programming would move to FS1, where the property could be an anchor tenant.

“God bless anybody who for the past three years has followed ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ to a new network, two different nights, and now another new network,” said Fox’s Shanks, a vocal MMA supporter who got to know White well in his previous job heading sports at DirecTV. “It’s here to stay on this night, on this network, hopefully we think for the next 20 years. It’s gone through a lot. I think that it has been resilient. And we’ve put the promotional muscle behind it to make sure people do know it’s now on Fox Sports 1 on Wednesday nights.”

Just as the migration from Spike to the Fox channels brought its difficulties, the move to FS1 has come with its own set.

The first fights on FS1 when the network launched Aug. 17 garnered an audience of 1.71 million, still the most-watched show to air on the new network. But the decline since then has been precipitous, to 809,000 viewers and then 539,000.

Still, the fact that Fox chose the UFC as the property to highlight on FS1’s launch day says much about the heft the network is willing to put behind the sport.

Not only is all UFC programming now available on a pair of sports channels, the growth of which is a priority for News Corp., but FS1 has carved out a single night to highlight as an appointment destination for fans. Wednesday night is not only home to “The Ultimate Fighter,” but also to the “UFC Tonight” studio show, and the live cards that previously aired on FX and Fuel.

Selling fights on Wednesday nights rather than Fridays and Saturdays almost certainly will cost the UFC ticket revenue. It expects to fill fewer seats and charge lower prices, especially when it takes its events to the West Coast. Still, UFC management figures the television upside is worth the trade.

“What we give up on the ticket sales is peanuts compared to what we think we’re going to get in terms of consistency and appointment television and the luster it’s going to add to our brand,” Epstein said. “That, to me, is the biggest structural pillar we’ve put in place. Wednesday night, we’re going to own it. It’s going to be all about us. It’s going to take a few years to reap all the benefits from that, but it’s a big, big change.”

On a recent trip through the Fox offices, White bumped into Freer in a hallway. Rather than striking up a conversation about ratings or on-air promotion, Freer asked him how ticket sales were going since the move to Wednesday night.

“It’s a challenge,” White told him. “But we’ve had bigger challenges.”

Freer reminded White that he could turn to Fox’s RSNs and affiliates to push ticket sales in any city in which the UFC promotes a show. And he told him that if down the road, the losses on ticket sales were outstripping the television gains, they could reconsider the Wednesday night placement.

“Who does that in the television business?” White said. “In the television business, it’s: You’re going on Wednesday nights. Sink or swim. If it doesn’t work, we’ll bring in somebody else who can swim.

“It’s never been that way with these guys. That’s one of the reasons we know it’s going to work.”

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