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Back to basics: takeaways from UFC shifting PPV start times back to 10 PM EST

By Zach Arnold | October 12, 2011

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1. Old habits die hard

There seems to be mass panic right now about the low rating the UFC 136 prelims on Spike drew for ratings last weekend, given the two fights on the card that hardcores were interested in. It’s just proof that what excites the hardcores and the announcing team isn’t always what draws. (Ask Bellator all about that phenomena.) Sometimes, guys like Leonard Garcia move the needle by bringing in 200,000 extra fans. Other times, a fight like Anthony Pettis vs. Jeremy Stephens isn’t sexy enough of a battle for casuals to care about.

The move to get prelims going on TV at 9 PM EST and PPV start backs time to 10 PM EST is probably the right move, although I would say that upping the start time still does not address the fact that MMA will always be a niche sport, especially during the Fall & Winter when you are competing against college football & other live sporting events on television. For the hardcore MMA fans who come from the pro-wrestling world, other sports are not going to influence their decision to watch UFC shows. However, casual sporting fans who may buy a Brock Lesnar PPV are not going to be terribly moved to buy a UFC PPV headlined by Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard if ABC is airing Nebraska vs. Ohio State. You don’t often hear people discuss the impact of CBS airing SEC Saturday evening games or ABC airing Big 12 games on Saturday nights, but if you got big schools like Alabama vs. Florida playing a game at the same time as your PPV product, you’re going to lose some buys.

(In the case of college football on Saturday nights, you’re dealing with live games on Fox Sports Net/Comcast Sportsnet, occasionally Notre Dame on NBC, occasionally SEC on CBS, the ABC evening game, plus games on ESPN, ESPN2, and the various ABC-owned pay TV affiliates like Big East Network, SEC Network, so on and so forth).

2. UFC’s admission of being a “West Coast sport” differentiates it from other US-based TV-backed sports

As we’ve seen demonstrated with the other sports (especially baseball playoffs), you can be dealing with media empires like Fox Sports who are based in Los Angeles but know that what TV executives care about the most is the East Coast television audience. Going back to the college football TV situation in point one, there’s a reason those games start at 5 PM PST — because it’s 8 PM EST. Imagine them starting games at 11 PM EST and you’d end up with an audience the size of Fresno State/Hawaii games (not very big).

Outside of big Las Vegas-based boxing PPVs, UFC is the one major sport that embraces the West Coast over the East Coast. The fact that UFC is willing to make such an admission when it comes to their core PPV business says that the company still has a significant amount of work to do in terms of winning over a bigger market share back East. It’s tough to do that when your operations are in Las Vegas and you built the core audience on the left coast first.

I wouldn’t say being a left coast product is damaging in any way, but it is certainly a unique trait of the fight business — a sector of sports that will always stay in the ‘niche’ category.

3. Despite signing a deal with Fox Sports, PPV remains at the core of the UFC business model

November 12th in Anaheim has been advertised during NFL games on Fox. Dana White says that he’s paying Cain Velasquez & Junior dos Santos “PPV money” to fight on the show. The indication from those comments is that UFC is not making PPV-level money for being on network television. Barter set-up? Fox Sports says that ad slots sold out rapidly for the debut show and it should serve as a good lead-in for the Manny Pacquiao fight on PPV later that night.

(I don’t know if the UFC fight will air live on all coasts, though. If it airs delayed on the West Coast, that will be quite the irony.)

There’s no question that UFC made the right call in having Ari Emanuel broker the network deal to help increase the company’s exposure and actually attract some traditional sports fans. Will it help UFC down the road in terms of building new stars and converting them into PPV customers? That’s the calculation here by Zuffa and it’s a wise one.

What isn’t wise is the idea of making the UFC Japan show a Fox broadcast. That Japan show itself is a dumb idea, but it’s not my money and I don’t have an ego to stroke on that deal.

4. The start time is not the main problem facing UFC with declining PPV buys

When you announce that you’re going to be running 34 shows a year starting in 2012, that’s too many damn shows. People respond by cherry-picking the shows they only care about. Ask WWE how well that non-stop schedule has worked out for declining PPV buys.

Even for news junkies like us, 34 shows is simply too much to digest and you forget a lot of things very quickly. Listen to Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg mix up facts & figures sometimes now on television. If they are having trouble keeping up with previous fights, then you can’t expect fans to use the mental energy to try to keep up as well.

If you run too many damn shows you’re going to wear out your production teams and mistakes will be made. You’ll lose track of previous fights. Booking could very well suffer because of the sheer amount of workload placed on Joe Silva and Sean Shelby. Injuries will impact which fights to book on which cards and whether or not stars like Jon Jones should be rushed to fight, thus potentially placing young stars in positions where their careers could get short-circuited because they end up fighting veterans they aren’t simply ready to fight at that time.

Topics: Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 14 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

14 Responses to “Back to basics: takeaways from UFC shifting PPV start times back to 10 PM EST”

  1. Matt Bishop says:

    Spot on as always, Zach.

  2. fd says:

    I agree that the different start time isn’t the only problem, and probably not even the main problem with declining buys. But it’s my understanding that the UFC gets a basic amount of information on where the buys come from. If there has been a significant decline in buys from the west coast since they moved the start time, that’s something that’s fairly easily addressed – whereas the number of shows a year they do is something of a balancing act, where they don’t want to oversaturate but they also want to have enough shows that guys are getting sufficient fight dates, and they don’t have to cut too many people that could be built on by their competition.

    So while the start time may not be the main problem, it’s the problem that has a fairly simple solution, so it makes sense that it would be the first one that they address.

  3. Dave says:

    Two PPVs a month is about $100 a month added to an already inflated cable bill. Of course you have to pick and choose in a situation like this, especially in a not-so-great economy with a pretty high unemployment rate. If you are like me you cancelled your cable a while ago (a year ago for me) because internet + cable was in the $180 range. Add in a UFC PPV and you go up to $230 and add more? Well, you are screwed.

    Sure, you can make that whole, “watch it with friends” argument, but you’d be surprised how few people are willing to band together and chip in money for a PPV when you are all adults with significant others or even families. Also take into account that I had a lot of friends who loved watching the stuff who have burned out on it and might watch one show a year now and will read other results online.

    UFC’s current model also tends to appeal to people watching these shows alone. I don’t know about you, but does anybody invite friends over to watch fights on Facebook in a small window inside of a browser on their laptop? The dance you have to do to watch UFC shows is strange, and sort of not appealing when you have to jump through hoops.

    Then the decision to make the shows earlier killed it if you aren’t on East Coast time. Prelims start at 4pm here and I keep overnight hours, so I’m usually not even awake by 4pm and by the time the PPV starts there are other things I need to be doing. So I’m glad they are moving it back, that helps, but still.

    Too many shows and they all do rather low numbers. Really in the long run, what is better, one show a month getting 800,000+ viewers or two shows getting 300,000 apiece?

    • 45 Huddle says:

      That dance is ending. The prelim fights, pre and fight press conferences will all be on FuelTV. Going from Facebook to SpikeTV to PPV back to is over. It will all be DVR’d now.

      And those past shows have done bad numbers because of the main events….

      Let me also add…

      I don’t think the downtick in popularity is that big of a deal. Personally, I have thought (and said) that there would be a decrease in popularity happening in the future. And that has finally happened.

      But the sport now has an industry around it. It has a major company backing it (FOX). It’s still getting $2 Million gates for the bigger shows minimum. The fighters are still getting good money. None of that is going to change.

      People can worry all they want…. But Zuffa is locked in for 7 years…. And the money will still be flowing. These business issues are more just a short term problem then anything else.

      I guess coming from the old school days of waiting hours for a simple result of a fight online….. These “problems” of the industry aren’t really problems.

      • Dave says:

        Yeah, I think that will be extremely helpful to have everything in the same vicinity.

        The prelims being on Facebook really takes away from the ‘social’ aspect of watching the fights. If you want to watch all of them there is not a lot of time between the Facebook stream and the Spike prelims if you were to go out to a bar.

  4. 45 Huddle says:

    1) I prefer the 9pm start time, but do admit that I had a hard time getting to watch the SpikeTV prelims when they started.

    2) The buyrates have been bad because the PPV’s haven’t had the big names on them. Just a streak of bad luck, not much else. Wait until GSP/Condit, Lesnar/Overeem, & Jones/Machida happen to see if there is really any downtick…

    3) They need to stick to 1 PPV per month maximum. Preferably 8 PPV’s with the FOX deal now happening.

    4) I don’t think the time change shows they prefer the West Coast. I think it just shows that after years and years of both boxing and MMA PPV’s having the main event start after midnight Eastern Time…. That it’s just not something they can work around.

    5) Dana White has already said he is going to do this…. But they certainly need 2 announcer teams. Rogan/Goldberg for the big events. I think they should have Harris/Florian for the smaller ones.

    6) The number of shows is not the problem. It’s the number of pay shows. Those need to be kept to a minimum. Ratings will still be decent for free shows. I think people are confusing Versus ratings with SpikeTV ratings while thinking that there is burnout in viewership numbers. Throughout the year, SpikeTV ratings have been pretty much what they were last year.

    • Dave says:

      Your last point is exactly what is going on with their buyrates.

      Two PPVs a month is simply too much, so much money needs to be spent and you are basically pushing consumers to pirate events. Their deals with cable companies even make it so the online PPVs are full cost, which is just too much for what is offered.

      If they pace themselves and do one big PPV a month with solid names on the main card they’ll be back up to drawing numbers that aren’t ‘bad.’

      People aren’t watching on Versus because it is Versus.

      • 45 Huddle says:

        I wouldn’t even say pirate events. I would say just outright skip the events for many of the fans. And once you get the consumer to get used to skipping events, it hurts long term business.

        If you give fans 8 to 12 PPV’s a year, a lot more fans will instinctively just order every single event.

  5. Brad Wharton says:

    Being in the UK, this news doesn’t make a massive difference, although the one hour earlier start time did take the edge off a little. It wasn’t even getting to bed at half 4/5am as opposed to half 5/6am, it was more that with the Facebook prelims/Spike, fights started at 11pm, rather than 3am. So you could go to the pub and be back sober enough to stay up for the fights, rather than coming home and waiting for 3 hours, or staying out till 3am and being too hammered to stay away for the main event. So boo UFC for messing with my complicated and alcohol-fueled social schedule.

    Back to the main point though, the second poster got it right. Changing the times back isn’t a catch all solution to dipping PPV buyrates, but its a quick fix that *might* nudge them in the right direction.

  6. Jonathan Snowden says:

    I liked the earlier time. I could watch the show, write two articles, and still be in bed at a decent hour.

    • Steve4192 says:

      I think everyone east of the Mississippi liked the earlier start time better, but it clearly did not go over well with the west coast fan base.

  7. Zack says:

    What are the details with the Fuel network? I’ve heard that it’s only in 20% of US homes, but I don’t know if that is accurate or not.

    Is it in a low number because it’s in a tiered package that you have to pay extra for? (like HDnet, etc)

  8. Andre says:

    Great read. Definitely got me thinking. But please stop using the word sexy to describe everything. this is MMA not Jersey Shore.

  9. Safari_Punch says:

    I’ve never understood why the UFC doesn’t put the fighters that draw on a heavier rotation if their bodies are willing and they’re not damaged from previous fights. For a fighter to fight once or twice a year seems a bit silly to me if he came out relatively unscathed from his previous bout.

    The fighters that don’t draw or there isn’t a spot for him – if the UFC were to cut down their shows – why can’t they loan them out to other organizations? They can promote their brand on other company shows and if their fighters are as good as they say they are – which they’re not in many cases – they can show their “superiority” over the competition. If they want to protect said loaners, have them fight their own fighters on someone else’s show.

    Fans don’t want to pay $50 for fighters they don’t want to see – which is a given. So why continue to shove unwanted fighters down fans throats?


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