By Zach Arnold | October 12, 2011
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.