Late in the summer of 2011 Dana White was a very happy man. The date was August 18th to be exact and the UFC had just signed a landmark seven year contact with FOX. The new deal called for four live specials a year on the top rated network and numerous events on its cable properties FX and FUEL. By all accounts, the future was looking bright.
"This partnership is going to be amazing," proclaimed White. "It’s going to take the sport to the next level. And all those people out there who thought I was a lunatic 10 years ago when I said this sport was going to be the biggest in the world, here we are. This is the first step."
While you certainly can't blame the UFC president for being excited after signing such a monumental deal, when it comes to ratings the first year of the UFC and FOX relationship hasn't exactly lived up to those lofty expectations. Ratings for the UFC on FOX series have been a mixed bag thus far, with a pair mediocre numbers in the middle of the year book-ended by shows netting strong ratings in January and December. It's certainly possible the UFC will reach "the next level" in terms of popularity thanks to the FOX deal, but they aren't there yet.
Meanwhile over on the slowly emerging FUEL TV, UFC programing has been a success relative to the station's low average. However, FUEL is still available in very few homes so even the best rated show on the network is viewed by a miniscule audience.
By and large the bulk of first run UFC programing airs on FX, which in theory should have exposed the company to more viewers than Spike TV thanks to its higher station average. So far this hasn't been the case, with UFC on FX specials drawing significantly lower numbers than the UFC Fight Night series did on Spike. This must come as something of a disappointment considering the UFC is now sharing a network with hit shows like Louie and Sons of Anarchy rather than low rent programs like Manswers and Blue Mountain State. However, even though UFC on FX ratings haven't been stellar, they are still within an acceptable range.
The same can't be said for Ultimate Fighter since the move to FX. Many predicted Friday would be a difficult night to draw viewers given the UFC's target demographic, but few could have predicted just how precipitous the drop would be. Ratings started a bit flat, if still respectable, for The Ultimate Fighter: Live back in March, but they completely bottomed out this fall when TUF 16 set an all time low not once, not twice, but three times during the series' thirteen episode run. Things got so bad the UFC made the controversial pick of Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as coaches for the upcoming 17th season of TUF and convinced FX to move the show to Tuesdays, where it will serve as the lead in to the popular Sons of Anarchy.
Some critics may view this as putting a band-aid on a knife wound considering how moribund TUF appears at this point, but a look back at past seasons' ratings reveals it might be too soon to sound the death knell for the long running reality show. There have been times in the past when lackluster TUF ratings on Spike - although still far better than this year's on FX - have led people to believe the show was at least water-skiing in a leather jacket and white swimming trunks if not already full on jumping the shark. However, on at least three separate occasions TUF bounced back strong.
Season 10 did some of the best numbers in the series' four year run up until that point thanks to an all heavyweight cast featuring Kimbo Slice and a dynamic rivalry between coaches Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Rashad Evans. Georges St. Pierre and Josh Koscheck had a similar dynamic on season twelve and also did stellar ratings More recently, season 14 pulled in impressive numbers with relatively mid-tier stars Michael Bisping and Jason "Mayhem Miller" as coaches.
So why did ratings fall off a cliff this year?
That's a question we won't be able to fully answer until about midway through the next season. It may be that convincing fight fans to stay in and watch a reality show every Friday night is a losing proposition. Perhaps the casts of fighters and coaching dynamics just failed to catch on with viewers this year. Of course it's also possible that despite past comebacks the concept is simply past its expiration date and no amount of band aids will ever stop the bleeding.
Whatever the future holds for The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC and FOX relationship is likely to look quite a bit different over the coming years as both sides grow into the partnership. With the current belief in the television industry that live sporting events offer "DVR-proof" programing that can therefore demand higher advertising rates, it's a great time for the UFC to be on network TV. This challenge so far has been balancing the company's primary revenue stream - pay per view - with delivering cards on FOX that feature enough mainstream stars to garner viewer interest. It's an encouraging sign for the company going forward that they seem to have stumbled upon a winning formula late in the year with UFC on FOX 5. Whether they can continue that momentum going forward will be one of the major stories to watch this year.
But before we do that, let's take a closer look back at the ratings for the first year of the UFC and FOX's relationship and see what we can learn.
UFC on FOX
As the above graph shows, UFC on FOX ratings started off astronomical with an average of 5.7 million viewers for the first show in November of 2011. Shortly thereafter viewership began a gradual fall in 2012 that saw them reach a plateau of 2.4 million for the third and fourth installments before rebounding to 4.4 million for the fifth special in the series. What the graph doesn't show are differences in star power and the promotion of each show.
UFC on FOX 1, of course, was a one match show featuring Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos for the heavyweight title. It was promoted heavily during NFL games and had the easily identifiable hook of the heavyweight championship being on the line. The second installment in the series was down a million viewers from the first, which was perhaps to be expected given how anticlimactic the lighting quick knockout in the main event of UFC on FOX 1 came across. Another thing UFC on FOX 2 had going against it in comparison to its predecessor was a light heavyweight title eliminator between Rashad Evans and Phil Davis in the main event rather than a title fight.
4.7 million viewers was still a great rating, but the same couldn't be said for the 2.4 million that turned into the third and fourth installments of UFC on FOX. Of course there were mitigating facts with these numbers as well. UFC on FOX 3 was tepidly promoted under the uninformative and bland slogan "four fights!" by FOX and the UFC put together a weak main event of Nate Diaz vs. Jim Miller. What's more, the show ran the same night as the Floyd Mayweather vs. Miguel Cotto fight that ended up doing over 1.5 million buys on pay per view. UFC on FOX 4 featured an even less appealing main event than its predecessor in Brandon Vera vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and went up against the Olympics. In both cases stiff competition can be seen as a contributing factor in the ratings slump.
However, just last month UFC on FOX 5 rebounded up to 4.4 million despite going up against the Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez fight which netted 1.25 million buys on ppv. This was thanks to a strong FOX card featuring a lightweight title match between Ben Henderson and Nate Diaz plus the return of B.J. Penn from retirement. The special also likely benefited from FOX advertising it during it NFL games and airing an excellent Road to the Octagon special. While the December rating was still over a million viewers shy of what UFC on FOX 2 did on January 28th, both numbers point to a trend of NFL exposure being a huge difference maker for the UFC on FOX.
Another possible factor in the upturn in viewership for UFC on FOX 5 is the network making the call to move the preliminary card from the low penetration FUEL TV to FX. In a media conference call last November, FOX Sports Media Group president Eric Shanks referred to the prelims as "a funnel" that can lead viewers into tuning into the main card on FOX. The above graph shows that may indeed be the case, but it will take at least another year's worth of data before we can really see for certain if there is any correlation between preliminary viewership on cable and ratings on network television.
Pay Per View Prelims on FX
Although FX is ostensibly a much stronger network than Spike, ratings were slightly down for pay per view preliminary cards with a yearly average of 1.1 million viewers in 2012 versus an average of 1.4 million in 2011. What this means at this point is anyone's guess. It could be the UFC just isn't as attractive to FX's core audience as it was to Spike's, or perhaps the decline is indicative of a general downturn in interest in MMA.
While it may at first be tempting to attribute the lower ratings for 2012 to one or two aberrantly low numbers, the trend for the year paints a different picture. Viewership was consistently lower than in 2011 throughout the year, with numbers falling bellow the 2011 basement of 1.0 million viewers five times in 2012.
Ratings also took a dip late in the year in 2011 before rebounding for the final show of the year, but the drop off in 2012 was far more pronounced and went on for a longer period of time.
The above graph shows the correlation between FX prelim ratings and approximate pay per view buys in 2012 pending the buyrate for UFC 155 (Note: the UFC doesn't officially announce pay per view buyrates but reporters such as MMAFighting.com's Dave Meltzer are able to obtain unofficial figures. These figures come from the invaluable database on MMAPayout.com Blue Book). Clearly there is some correlation between pay per view numbers and preliminary ratings. The largest spike in both data sets was for the Anderson Silva/Chael Sonnen rematch at UFC 148 and there were big dips for UFC 142 and UFC 147 (both of which took place in Brazil and reportedly did huge television ratings in that country).
It's also worth explaining for those who aren't used to following ratings why the pay per view numbers are drastically lower than the prelim figures, despite the "funnel" concept Shanks espouses. Simply put, far more people are inclined to tune into a free television show than are willing to spend $60 to watch a pay per view. A great ppv number like the 700,000 who paid for Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans at UFC 145 would be considered an abysmal rating for a first run episode of TUF on FX. Of course, the UFC takes in a far greater amount of revenue from 700,000 ppv buys than they would from even the best rated season of TUF.
UFC on FX
UFC on FX ratings were up and down in the freshman year of the series, with the highest rating coming in at 1.4 million viewers for the March 3rd fight between Thiago Alves and Martin Kampmann at UFC on FX 2. Viewership nosedived for the next event which featured a title eliminator rematch between flyweights Demetrious Johnson and Ian McCall. The 21% drop in viewership for this show could mean fans aren't ready to buy into flyweights as headliners or that an overabundance of shows does in fact lead to an erosion in viewership. At any rate, we'll likely get a better idea just what the flyweights' drawing power is when Johnson headlines UFC on FOX 6 against John Dodson later this month.
Ratings rebounded above the yearly average with the fourth installment in the UFC on FX series thanks to a main event featuring bigger names in Clay Guida and Gray Maynard. However, numbers fell back down to the 1.1 million mark with UFC on FX 5, which was a rather lackluster card featuring a main event of Travis Browne vs. Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva.
The series hit an all time low for UFC on FX 6, which doubled as the finale for the Australian Ultimate Fighter: the Smashes series. This was largely a throwaway show in terms of US star power, and expectations were doubtlessly low heading into it.
As you can see by the graph above, there isn't a strong correlation between FUEL TV prelims and ratings for UFC on FX events. This graph is useful because not only does it provide a stark illustration of just how small FUEL's reach is compared to an established network like FX, but it also shows the "funnel effect" is largely impossible with a station as weak as FUEL.
UFC on FX viewership in 2012 was markedly lower than the past few years of the comparable UFC Fight Night series on Spike TV. The newly minted series on FX drew an average 1.2 million viewers for the year compared to 2.0 million in 2011, 1.5 million in 2010, and 2.0 million in 2009 for UFC Fight Night on Spike. That's a 40% drop from 2011 to 2012. Overall last year was 34% lower than Spike's average from 2009 to 2011. The caveat here is the sample size was considerably smaller for UFC Fight Night, with two specials airing in 2011, three in 2010 and three in 2009. This is in contrast to six UFC on FX shows in 2012.
Of course this could also be seen as evidence that overexposure leads to audience burnout. In addition to this, one of the inevitable consequences of running an increased number of shows in a sport with a high injury rate like MMA is that the finite number of true drawing cards end up spread too thin, thus leading to weak main events like Browne/Bigfoot at UFC on FX 5.
Ratings on FX this year started out bellow Spike's average of 1.8 million over the last three years of UFC Fight Night when UFC on FX 1 drew 1.3 million viewers back in January. This was also down from the 1.8 million who tuned into UFC Fight Night 25 in September of 2011.
Running more shows with slightly less impressive ratings might be worth it for the UFC since that they are getting paid far more in their FOX deal than they made on Spike. More shows also means more live gates, but there is a risk of burnout on that front as well. The challenge going forward will be avoiding a further erosion of fan interest in these second tier shows on FX amid a busy schedule on pay per view and FOX.
UFC on FUEL TV
The first thing that jumps out when we look at the UFC on FUEL TV viewership is that suddenly we're dealing in terms of low hundreds of thousands of viewers rather than the millions common on FOX, FX, and Spike. This is because FUEL is available in just 36 million homes as opposed to over 98 million homes for both FX and Spike. As a result shows on FUEL are less about exposing the UFC product to the masses and more about helping to build FUEL into a stronger network. Judged by those standards the series has been a success.
The crash in ratings at the end of the year can be attributed to the early start times of both UFC on FUEL 5 and UFC on FUEL 6. Below is a graph adjusting the ratings to reflect replays later in the day for these two shows, both of which outdrew the original airings.
The Ultimate Fighter
There really isn't any way to sugarcoat Ultimate Fighter ratings in 2012. Both TUF: Live and TUF 16 reached record low numbers that would have been considered inconceivable in the Spike TV era. In fact, combined viewership for both seasons of TUF this year was down 36% from last year's average on Spike.
Ratings for TUF: Live started tepid compared to past seasons, but were still respectable with 1.3 million viewers tuning into the season premiere. Evidently fans weren't enamored with what they saw in the opening weeks however, since the show nosedived to an all time low 947,000 viewers in week five and never made it above the one million mark for the remainder of the season. Before all was said and done the show would hit another record low with just 821,000 tuning into week 11.
Things went from bad to worse in season 16, with the series premiere - usually one of the higher rated episodes of every season - netting a distressing 947,000 viewers. The decline got even steeper from there, with the show plummeting to another all time low in week three at just 775,000. Week four brought a fleeting sign of hope when the UFC on FOX 5 lead in helped bolster the show to 1.1 million viewers.
The hope was short lived though as the very next week ratings once again fell off a cliff and reached a new low with a paltry 624,000 viewers. It was at that point UFC and FX officals pushed the panic button and announced Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as coaches for season 17 in a blatant attempt to save the faltering reality show.
Unsurprisingly the announcement had no effect on TUF 16 ratings, and the numbers stayed low for the rest of the regular season with the exception of week eight which featured the infamous "let me bang bro!" outburst from cast member Julian Lane and the novelty of seeing Roy Nelson compete in a foot race. However, in a development that was nothing short of shocking on the surface given how low ratings for the season were, the finale drew a relatively impressive 1.3 million viewers.
The lesson here would appear to be that part of the reason TUF 16 sank to unprecedented depths in the ratings was the cast of fighters didn't appeal to viewers, since the finale broke with tradition and featured largely name fighters up and down the card.
The above chart shows TUF: Live and TUF 16 ratings in comparison with one another. Besides the consistently lower ratings for season 16, the most interesting thing on the chart is the difference in ratings between the two finales. Again, it looks like part of the reason the season 16 finale outperformed TUF: Live was a focus on established fighters rather than showcasing the cast members who competed during the season.
Note: Apologies for the slightly confusing nature of the legend in the chart above. The graphing program I used wouldn't allow me to list the seasons in chronological order due to the uneven data points along the X axis.
In order to help dispel the notion TUF simply ran its course with season 15 (A.K.A TUF: Live), it might be useful to look at the viewership numbers for the last two seasons on Spike TV relative to this past year on FX. Season 14 did strong numbers just months before the premiere of TUF: Live and was markedly up from season 13. Although season 13 ratings were considered disappointing at the time, both season 13 and 14 outperformed this year's shows.
The above graph provides another look at the difference in viewership between both seasons of TUF that aired on Spike in 2011 and this past year's on FX. As you can see, the season average was considerably lower in 2012 as compared with 2011. Although season 13 didn't light the world on fire ratings wise relative to past seasons, it drew a series average of 1.3 million viewers. Season 14 did much better with a series average 1.6 million viewers, including a monstrous 2.5 million for the season finale.
In contrast to these numbers, season 15 squeaked by with barely 1.0 million viewers on average - down 38% from what season 14 did just a few months prior - and season 16 fell into the six figures with a mere 865,500 average viewers. Clearly something was flawed with the UFC and FX's strategy for TUF in 2012.
Considering that season 14 brought TUF back from the brink in 2011, I find it hard to believe the concept of fighters living in a house and vying for a contract growing long in the tooth is solely responsible for the ratings decline in 2012. Obviously some of the blame must be put on the Friday night timeslot, but the high ratings for the season 15 premiere and season 16 finale indicates fans will tune in on Friday for a product they are interested in. That simply wasn't the case for most of this year for whatever reason. It will be very interesting to see if TUF can once again rise from the ashes early this year with two superstar coaches and the move to Tuesdays.
List of All American UFC Television Ratings in 2012
The following figures are the average number of viewers for each show. Ratings were compiled primarily through using statistics found on MMAJunkie.com, although I used sites like MMAFighting.com, Bloody Elbow, and MMAMania to track down a few harder to locate numbers (primarily more recent shows where the overnight rating was the only one I could find on MMAJunkie).
UFC on FOX (Yearly Average: 3.5 million)
- UFC on FOX 2 (Evans vs. Davis): 4.7 million
- UFC on FOX 3 (Diaz vs. Miller): 2.5 million
- UFC on FOX 4 (Rua vs. Vera): 2.5 million
- UFC on FOX 5 (Henderson vs. Diaz): 4.4 million
UFC on FOX Prelims (Yearly Average on FUEL: 141,333)
- UFC on FOX 2 Prelims on FUEL (Dunham vs. Lentz) 144,000
- UFC on FOX 3 Prelims on FUEL (Ferguson vs. Johnson) 86,000
- UFC on FOX 4 Prelims on FUEL (Miller vs. Phan) 194,000
- UFC on FOX 5 Prelims on FX (Edwards vs. Stephens) 1.2 million
Pay Per View Prelims on FX (Yearly Average: 1.2 million)
- UFC 142 (Aldo vs. Mendes main card, Tavares vs. Stout prelims): 880,000
- UFC 143 (Diaz vs. Condit main card, Poirier vs. Holloway prelims): 1.4 million
- UFC 144 (Edgar vs. Henderson main card, Gomi vs. Mitsuoka prelims): 1.5 million
- UFC 145 (Jones vs. Evans main card, Browne vs. Griggs prelims): 1.6 million
- UFC 146 (Dos Santos vs. Mir main card, Elkins vs. Brandao prelims): 1.3 million
- UFC 147 (Silva vs. Franklin II main card, Damm vs. Medeiros prelims): 969,000
- UFC 148 (Silva vs. Sonnen II main card, Guillard vs. Camoes prelims): 1.8 million
UFC 149 (Faber vs. Barao main card, Ring vs. McGee prelims): 1.0 million
- UFC 150 (Henderson vs. Edgar II main card, Bermudez vs. Hayden prelims): 974,000
UFC 151 - Cancelled
- UFC 152 (Jones vs. Belfort main card, Magalhaes vs. Pokrajac prelims): 955,000
UFC 153 (Silva vs. Bonnar main card, Bezerra vs. Sicilia prelims): 1.0 million
- UFC 154 (GSP vs. Condit main card, Cote vs. Sakara prelims): 980,000
- UFC 155 (Dos Santos vs. Velasquez II main card, Wineland vs. Pickett prelims): 1.4 million
UFC on FX (Yearly Average: 1.2 million)
- UFC on FX 1 (Guillard vs. Miller): 1.3 million
- UFC on FX 2 (Alves vs. Kampmann): 1.4 million
- UFC on FX 3 (Johnson vs. McCall): 1.1 million
- UFC on FX 4 (Maynard vs. Guida): 1.3 million
- UFC on FX 5 (Browne vs. Bigfoot): 1.1 million
- UFC on FX 6 (Sotiropoulos vs. Pearson): 972,000
UFC On FX Prelims on FUEL (Yearly Average: 107,500)
- UFC on FX 1 Prelims (Brenneman vs. Roberts): 148,000
- UFC on FX 2 Prelims (Te Huna vs. Rosa): 113,000
- UFC on FX 3 Prelims (Garcia vs. Grice): 84,000
- UFC on FX 4 Prelims (Lamas vs. Hioki): 160,000
- UFC on FX 5 Prelims (Johnson vs. Castillo): 44,000
- UFC on FX 6 Prelims (Mendes vs. Meza): 96,000
UFC on FUEL TV (Yearly Average: 166,200)
- UFC on FUEL TV 1 (Ellenberger vs. Sanchez): 217,000
- UFC on FUEL TV 2 (Gustafsson vs. Silva): 197,000
- UFC on FUEL TV 3 (Jung vs. Poirier): 173,000
- UFC on FUEL TV 4 (Munoz vs. Weidman): 211,000
UFC on FUEL TV 5 (Struve vs. Miocic): 111,000 (Early afternoon broadcast)
- UFC on FUEL TV 6 (Franklin vs. Le): 88,000 (Early morning broadcast)
The Ultimate Fighter Live: Team Cruz vs. Team Faber (Season Average: 1.0 million)
- Episode 1: 1.3 million
- Episode 2: 1.1 million
- Episode 3: 1.2 million
- Episode 4: 1.1 million
- Episode 5: 947,000
- Episode 6: 1.0 million
- Episode 7: 1.0 million
- Episode 8: 929,000
- Episode 9: 954,000
- Episode 10: 948,000
- Episode 11: 821,000
- Episode 12: 875,000
- Live Finale: 1.0 million
The Ultimate Fighter 16: Team Carwin vs. Team Nelson (Season Average: 865,500)
- Episode 1: 947,000
- Episode 2: 872,000
- Episode 3: 775,000
- Episode 4: 1.1 million
- Episode 5: 624,000
- Episode 6: 811,000
- Episode 7: 676,000
- Episode 8: 1.1 million
- Episode 9: 921,000
- Episode 10: 643,000
- Episode 11: 804,000
- Episode 12: 678,000
- Live Finale: 1.3 million
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