TUF 18 debuts to record low viewers on new channel

Friday, September 06, 2013

The debut of the The Ultimate Fighter 18 on FOX Sports 1 with coaches Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate on a collision course drew 762,000 viewers, the lowest season debut to date. UFC Fight Night 28 which ended an hour before the debut drew just 539,000 viewers.

UFC president Dana White sent MMAFighting’s Ariel Helwani a statement attributing the ratings to growing pains on a channel that is just a couple of weeks old.

We were #1 on all of cable with M18-34 and M18-49. We also beat the US Open and the Detroit vs Red Sox MLB game. This is all part of the building process.

We’ve made a commitment to work with FOX to build this network. If you look at all of the other networks we’ve ever been on we consistently pull strong ratings. The first time we put our prelims on FX we pulled 880K viewers and it grew, depending on the fight, up to 1.9 million viewers for UFC 156. Also, the TUF season with Carwin and Big Country averaged 822K viewers then Jones vs Sonnen averaged 1.3 million viewers. We currently hold the top four most watched telecasts on FS1 since the network launched.

To be honest, our Prelim and Fight Night numbers weren’t bad considering we started on the west coast at 2pm in the afternoon on a Wednesday. The most important thing is last night’s fights were awesome and this season of TUF is great.

Yes, we didn’t pull the 1 million + but we will. But, we also f—ed up last night by not starting the main event later so that we could get a live lead into TUF.

The bottom line is FOX couldn’t be happier with the UFC and the ratings we’re pulling. And we couldn’t be happier with the way we’ve been treated by the network.

Dave Meltzer, who has covered UFC viewership longer and better than anyone to date offered an analysis via his Wrestling Observer Newsletter .

But the rating underscores a bigger issue when it comes to UFC, which is one that the financial success of the big shows has hidden. In a business of making stars, the company’s secondary-level stars are far less popular than they were a few years ago. That’s part of the reason why the top level shows are remaining strong but you have rank-and-file shows doing so-so.

As far as why, there are different factors in play. One is the number of shows and number of fighters on the roster making it overwhelming for anyone except the niche that lives and breathes the sport (which includes its decision makers and almost all the hardcore fans that they hear from, and the media that covers it). The other have been the changes in television. The third factor is that possibly the number of stars with charisma is simply less. I think the product of adding more new weight classes has hurt, because when you had five champions, everyone knew all five off the top of their head and they were special. With nine champions, that is no longer the case, so both the champions and the top challengers lose steam because there is only so much room in the brain of average Joe Sports Fan to process when it comes to UFC. Plus, there are no Brock Lesnar and Kimbo Slices, and both of them brought great attention to the sport. The closest is Ronda Rousey, and she has an appeal, but it’s very different. And perhaps, with the quality of fighters constantly increasing, even the great ones on the way up, the stars don’t have the ability to run through guys the way they did a few years ago so don’t look as dominant.

While the FS 1 overall numbers for just about everything not UFC has been labeled a big disappointment, it’s not like ESPN didn’t take years to get off the ground. FOX is a huge corporation and has earmarked huge money behind the channel. They are going to get Major League Baseball next season, college football starting now, and no doubt will bid heavily for an NFL game a week at some point. It’s going to get stronger and more familiar over the next few years and right now we’re at the ground floor.

The answer is that there is so much UFC, that people are going to find the big stuff, and if it’s not big, they’ll skip it because there is too much content to try and keep up with. But even at these depreciated levels, it’s a big success for a station struggling to find its calling. And UFC is holding up a whole lot better than boxing, which debuted with a Golden Boy promotions show to 156,000 viewers going head-to-head with Raw on 8/19. And that number in no way means boxing is dying, just that boxing fans are not going to watch secondary fights.

Essentially, and this is an inevitable product, the base audience for the non top-tier shows, for both TV and PPV, has declined significantly. Whether it will continue a trend that has been going on for years, or will reverse with the idea their audience will grow as FS 1 grows, is the million dollar question.

Another point that someone in the TV industry noted to us regarding TUF and Fight Night ratings, is that UFC is still a Southwest and West Coast concentrated sport. Based on interest level, California, Nevada, Washington, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Hawaii are per capita the strongest states. Most of those states are Pacific time zone. Instead of the show airing in prime time from 10-11 p.m., in most of those places, because unlike FX and Spike, FS 1 doesn’t have a staggered West Coast feed, the show will be 7-8 p.m., and this will hurt the numbers somewhat. For example, the 9/4 Fight Night on the West Coast airs from 2-7 p.m. on a Wednesday and with a prime audience Males 25-49, that’s actually a killer for most.

Still, its success or failure has more to do with being on FS 1, and being promoted on FS 1, a new station, what the potential of a weekly series is and if the casual UFC fan finds it compelling enough to be can’t miss weekly television. If enough people think the show is great, we saw by 8/17 that it can do well. But anything short of that kind of buzz, and it’s going to be hurt by being on the new station with the tiny base audience.

The hoped for situation is that as FS 1 grows, UFC, as prime property, will grow with it, and these type of shows will be back to the level of the Spike days. But I strongly believe being on Spike instead of ESPN all those years was a key to growth. On ESPN, they would have been a niche secondary sport, with the bulk of the promotion around the traditional top-tier sports. On Spike, they were the UFC channel and their events were heavily promoted in commercials and programming and for the station’s marketing department, they were the biggest things on the station. If FS 1 gets to where it is hoped they would get, particularly if they get an NFL game in a few years, the station will grow. But UFC will never be its top priority. Right now it should be given its strength compared to all other programming coming out of the blocks.

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