UFC President Calls Fox Deal a 'Milestone' for the Sport
Describing its new seven-year deal with Fox as the ultimate "milestone" for a sport that has broken out of its niche, UFC president Dana White said the deal would propel the mixed martial arts genre and UFC "to the next level."
"There have been a lot of big milestones that we've had over the last 10 years," White said during a news conference Thursday announcing the deal. "But I have to be totally honest when I say that this is the biggest."
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Taking UFC to Fox, added White, "is what I always wanted. This is what I always felt was the pinnacle for us. Not just to be on the No. 1 network in the country, but to be on a network with other big sports, NFL, Major League Baseball, NASCAR."
The deal, which is estimated to be worth more than $600 million, calls for Fox to have four live UFC fights a year in primetime or late night, while FX will get Fight Night, which features up and coming fighters, and reality series The Ultimate Fighter, which will be revamped so that the final matches air live. Additional UFC programming including preliminary round fights and pre- and post-fight action will go to Fuel TV.
Earlier this month, UFC and Fox Sports announced a distribution deal in Latin America that gives Fox Sports the rights to air UFC content in 18 countries excluding Brazil.
UFC's deals with NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) and Spike, which has been airing UFC's signature reality series The Ultimate Fighter since 2005, are up at the end of the year, though Spike still has access to the UFC library through 2012. Ultimate Fighter will move to FX next spring.
The first live UFC match will air on Fox on Saturday, Nov. 12 at 9 p.m. White said the card has not been set, but he promised that the events on the broadcast network would feature marquee talent.
The deal with Fox confers further legitimacy on UFC as a valuable source of live programming in a time-shifted world. Lorenzo Fertitta, chairman and CEO of UFC, said the company was in discussions with a number of suitors.
"You had every major broadcaster out there vying for these rights," he said. "It wasn't a situation where it was a one-horse race."
Fertitta confirmed that UFC was also weighing a branded cable network. Sources say that UFC and NBC Sports were in serious discussions about such a venture for G4, the low-rated, male-targeted network that became part of the network's portfolio with the Comcast merger.
"I think that a UFC channel would be very successful," added Frititta. "We sat down and thought about it a little bit and we said, we do great fights. We're not in the business of running a network."
For FX, the calculation is that UFC will bring in more of the young male viewers the network targets with scripted series including It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League and Sons of Anarchy. FX president and GM John Landgraf estimated that there is 80% crossover between UFC fans and FX viewers.
"Both UFC and FX have enjoyed explosive growth over the last 10 years," said Landgraf. "We're not an emerging network anymore, and they're not an emerging professional sport anymore."
The UFC deal satisfies a missing piece of the network's broader programming strategy.
"The one thing that distinguished us from our competitors was professional sports," said Landgraf. "I think the UFC on FX is finally going to put us on a level playing field with all of our competitors."
The Ultimate Fighter has unknown MMA fighters living together in a house in Las Vegas and follows them as they train and ultimately face each other in UFC matches. But the recently wrapped 13th season on Spike was the second-lowest-rated in franchise history averaging 1.6 million viewers. (The series heads into its 14th and final season on Spike on Sept. 21.) And additional UFC programming on Spike, including UFC Unleashed and UFC Knockout, is down to 492,000 viewers this year, losing more than half of its audience since 2005. UFC and FX are banking that the live element will bolster Ultimate Fighter.
If UFC is not an emerging sport, it nevertheless has a way to go before it reaches the status of the NFL, MLB, NBA and college football and basketball. And Fox Sports Media Group chairman David Hill said the company's deal with UFC does not mean that it will not still be in the bidding for a new NFL Thursday night package that is estimated to go for as much as $600 million a year.
"We've always been opportunistic," said Hill. "And we've always look at various properties that come along."
Fox already has a Sunday NFL package, and the Thursday package is being mulled for FX. Fox Sports' competitors for the rights include Turner, ESPN and NBC Sports for its newly rebranded NBC Sports Network. HIll added that the company would continue to exercise fiscal restraint in sports rights bids.
"Sports rights are the ultimate supply and demand; there is one property and there are multiple bidders," he said. "And recently we've been the under-bidder on a couple of properties. We've been trumped by lots of money. But we bid what we think something's worth. And so we do a fair amount of soul searching and gazing at calculators and spread sheets before we go in. And we feel exactly the same way about the National Football League. We will look at it."