UFC Chief: 'We're Bigger Than the NFL Globally'

Ultimate Fighting Championship

The first of four Ultimate Fighting Championship "combat events" in 3D beamed directly to theaters in February in about 100 theaters and attracted big crowds. More events are planned for late summer.

Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White wants the sport to be as big as the NFL someday.

“I still don’t consider us mainstream,” White told reporters gathered for the Television Critics Association press tour on Wednesday. “We’ve been on Fox for a year, holding our numbers. We’re in 175 countries. We just went into China for the first time. The fight that we did [last November] in Macao was the biggest fight they’ve ever had in China. We’re bigger than the NFL globally, but nothing’s bigger than the NFL in this country."

Indeed, the mixed-martial arts sport has grown considerably -- in reputation and global penetration -- since White and his childhood friend Lorenzo Fertitta purchased UFC 13 years ago. The league is in the second year of its seven-year, $100 million deal with Fox Sports where fights and other UFC programming air on the broadcast network as well as cable networks FX, Fuel and Fox Sports Net. And UFC’s reality show Ultimate Fighter has been given a time-slot promotion on FX, moving from the Friday-night graveyard to Tuesdays at 9 p.m. beginning Jan. 22 where it will serve as a lead-in to Justified.

The upcoming season of Ultimate Fighter will feature Jon Jones, the UFC heavyweight champion, and Chael Sonnen coaching their respective teams of UFC aspirants. The new twist this season is that families are allowed to visit the Las Vegas house where the fighters are living and training. The show, which aired on Viacom’s Spike before the Fox-UFC deal, already has aired two cycles on FX. And network president and general manager John Landgraf said he promised White that if the show had trouble finding a broad audience on Fridays, it would get a better time-slot.

“Dana has been concerned about the ratings on Friday night,” said Landgraf. “The ratings didn’t improve significantly, so we’re honoring that promise to Dana.”

The latest iteration of the franchise pulled in less than a million viewers per episode on FX.

Ultimate Fighter is a very important television show for [UFC],” said White. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about the sport and the people who compete in it. When we bought the company one of our big challenges was we wanted to get this thing on free television. When we bought the company, it wasn’t even allowed on Pay Per View. I would definitely like to be as big as the NFL someday."