Thursday marked the beginning of a new era in mixed martial arts. Zuffa, LLC (The UFC’s parent company) and FOX Sports Media Group inked a multimedia-rights deal to air material on three of the network giant’s channels. The agreement includes: Four live events in a primetime/late-night slot on FOX starting November 12; weigh-in specials and pre/post-fight shows alongside highlight programs such as “UFC Unleashed” on FUEL TV; and the ratings juggernaut “The Ultimate Fighter” (TUF) paired with four to six live events on FX. TUF will be reformatted to include live fights, and fan voting to decide which combatants compete against one another.
Details of the monumental contract were announced during a press conference that featured prominent figures at the head of both companies. All had sterling things to say about the other, and seemed generally excited for what the future would bring to their relationship. The press conference felt more like a major sports signing in the NFL or NBA — not an event with combat sports as a main attraction.
There was no confirmation from FOX representatives about the actual price, but the deal is rumored to be worth around ninety million dollars per year.
For MMA fans this is undoubtedly great news. It sees a possible exponential expansion in the viewing audience, which could lead to more money for fighters, and better athletes getting involved at an earlier age. For boxing fans, it has got to be a bit of a punch to the gut.
The Sweet Science has a storied history of being on network television. Legends like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and “Sugar” Ray Leonard were regular attractions. Networks like ABC and CBS have such a large reach that it was not only easier to build up its fan base, but it also gave simplicity to creating new stars. Imagine fighters like Andre Ward, and YURIORKIS GAMBOA! (that’s for you Tim) being staples of Saturday afternoon and evening television that reaches over 100 million homes; people would actually know who you were talking about when saying the name Yuriorkis, instead of saying “gesundheit.”
However, as salaries for pugilists started rising, promoters found new ways to make the matches as expensive as possible for consumers. First, there was closed-circuit television, then along came HBO and pay-per-view to change the game for good. Broadcast fights still chugged a long for a little while, but when Duk Koo Kim died from injuries he suffered against Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in a title fight on CBS in 1982 the networks seemed to close up shop for good. Now there isn’t a top-tier fight to be found outside of pay television. ESPN still has its Friday Night Fights” franchise, but a battles featuring top-10 competition are rarely aired. If someone wants to see the best fighting the best, they have to either subscribe to HBO and Showtime, or buy some of any number events shown on PPV that range from $15 to $65.
The events on the “pay channels” are usually headlined by a single fight, with little attention given to the other athletes competing on the card. Boxing business has been done like this for years, and is a big reason it’s so hard for them to sell the idea of an event to network television. Boxing is a market moved by stars, and these stars demand top-of-the-top money even if they aren’t worth it. Zuffa pays their fighters a lot less, which isn’t necessarily a good thing (and definitely a conversation for another day), but it affords them opportunities like this.
When the UFC puts on events, the UFC is the main event. No matter who is fighting, the star of the show is inevitably those three little letters. When fans buy a UFC event, they believe they know what they are getting: High-quality competition (which sometimes isn’t the case) and mostly entertaining fights. FOX brought them in because they are a brand, not just a group of fighters.
In boxing, fans tune in to see the two guys fighting, and sometimes just one of them. Top promoters Bob Arum and Richard Schaefer have been trying to bring boxing to network television for years. The closest they came was a decent preview show aired at dreadful times on CBS. Their thought process seems to be “We need stars to break into network television” instead of “We could make new stars through network television.”
If the UFC and its fighters play this correctly, then they really could start to be compared to the big sports leagues in North America. Zuffa needs to keep things fresh, and try to find new ways to expand their influence throughout not just the U.S.A., but around the world. Athletes might want to start thinking about grouping together to get a guaranteed portion of revenue, and could look to the unions of the other major sports. (I’ve even got a name for it if they were to form, UFCA — Ultimate Fighting Combatant’s Association.)
Boxing has some work to do, and in this writer’s opinion they could go one of two ways: Put together a card with more than one draw which probably would make it hard to recoup the money they’ll spend, or start from the ground up and sell the audience with prospects and exciting fights. I know which one I’d do.