Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) changed the way we watched mixed martial arts (MMA) back in 2011 after scoring an industry-defining deal with the FOX network, worth roughly $100 million per year for seven years beginning Jan. 1, 2012 and ending Jan. 1, 2019.
Not too shabby, considering UFC was banking $35 million per annum at Spike TV, later rebranded as Paramount Network.
At the time, it seemed like the network may have underpaid for a partnership that included 31 major events on big FOX, as well as a handful of “Fight Night” cards on FOX Sports 1 and FOX Sports 2, supported by the usual shoulder programming and of course, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality show.
The UFC on FOX debut pulled a staggering 5.7 million viewers.
That card was headlined by the Junior dos Santos vs Cain Velasquez title fight, ending by way of “Cigano” knockout. Nobody expected those numbers to hold, mind you, as the promotion needed to save its marquee title fights for the pay-per-view (PPV) market.
Even so, I don’t think anyone predicted just 2.4 million viewers during its first year, returned by the UFC on FOX 3 fight card topped by the lightweight showdown pitting Nate Diaz opposite Jim Miller.
UFC on FOX 30, the second-to-last event before UFC makes its debut on ESPN and ESPN+, pulled an anemic 1.04 rating with 1,678,000 viewers, the lowest in the history of the series. The easy answer is to blame watered-down fight cards and less-than-marketable talent.
The counter to that, of course, is that UFC on FOX 30 had the lightweight grudge match between Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez, two of the bloodiest and most violent fighters on the entire roster, evidenced by “The Diamond’s” post-fight performance bonus.
So what the hell happened?
MMA simply cannot compete with other sports who share the same demographic, which is why UFC on FOX cards are routinely beaten in the ratings by both professional and college teams. For example, the recent UFC Denver card drew 840,000 eyeballs, respectable numbers for FOX Sports 1, but still got annihilated by Georgia vs. Auburn, which grabbed nearly four million viewers.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that MMA also lost some of its luster, which is why TapouT fled to professional wrestling and Affliction is back on the rock-and-roll bandwagon. Personally, I think fan exhaustion has played a big part.
UFC staged 39 events in 2018, along with two seasons of TUF, resulting in fight cards that have a handful of big names to break up the nobodies. Some of the FOX Sports 1 events end well after 1 a.m. ET and get bogged down with six main-card bouts.
The promotion will end its seven-year FOX deal this Saturday night (Dec. 15, 2018) in Milwaukee with UFC on FOX 31, headlined by the lightweight rematch pitting Kevin Lee against Al Iaquinta. Yes, the same “Motown Phenom” responsible for these dreadful PPV numbers. I guess business is tough all over, which explains this.
See you in 2019 on ESPN, which is likely to have buyer’s remorse if this ratings trend continues.