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Peek-a-boo: UFC on ESPN2

By Zach Arnold | April 21, 2011

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Yesterday, I wrote a detailed post about Bellator’s yo-yo diet of ratings on MTV2. I closed out the article with this:

The only hope, and I mean only hope, long-term for Bellator is if UFC’s business relationship with Spike TV splinters and Spike decides to make the switch. Outside of that happening, I don’t know where the growth is going to be coming from in regards to viewership of Bellator shows on MTV2.

Last night, I think it is safe to say that a new wrinkle in the UFC/Spike TV relationship developed. At 11 PM EST/8 PM EST, the UFC Primetime series highlighting the upcoming GSP/Jake Shields fight randomly aired on ESPN2. I was completely taken aback when the program first started and immediately put out the word to friends about the broadcast. The reaction from my colleagues and friends was universal — utter amazement.

Now, the impact of it may be minimal in terms of accomplishment and more or less symbolic in nature. It appears to be a last-second deal and few, if any, in the online MMA community saw the broadcast happen.

(The old ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ riddle.)

Whether it drew a lot of eyeballs or not, the point is that UFC had Zuffa-produced programming on ESPN2. That’s clearly symbolic.

There are two schools of thought about the reason this move was done. The first school of thought (by Robert Joyner) is that ESPN2 needed some filler programming and decided to air the broadcast. Given what has happened with the indictments last Friday with the major online poker operations and the television programs those companies sponsored, ESPN has found itself in a position where they are airing some poker programming and not airing other poker programming. For a last-minute emergency program, you could do a lot worse than airing a UFC infomercial. Robert also thinks that it could be a sign of ESPN/Disney warming up to UFC. The counter-argument to that is that if they were warming up and becoming buddy-buddy, you would think they would give a lot more advance warning in terms of airing this Primetime series.

The second school of thought (from yours truly and most other MMA writers) is that this was either a barter deal or a time-buy. If that is the case, what would be the motive? The first thought that comes to mind is that this was a tactical strike against Spike TV for what they perceive right now the network is doing in terms of promoting their television shows. Remember, we’ve seen this song-and-dance before when UFC decided to do a time-buy with ION to air PPV preliminary fights. It wasn’t a big success but it wasn’t a big failure, either. ESPN2/Disney is certainly a step up from ION in that regards. Call it brinkmanship, I suppose. If it is another flare between UFC & Spike TV, it certainly ups the ante in regards to what the relationship is like between the two parties.

The other part of the second school of thought is that this was a time-buy done out of precaution for the upcoming UFC 129 PPV. There are going to be over 50,000 fans at the Sky Dome/Rogers Centre in Toronto for this event. It is going to be a Wrestlemania-type atmosphere and historic. And, yet, as Geno Mrosko points out, something feels… strange… about the enthusiasm level heading into this event as far as buying it on PPV is concerned. There shouldn’t be, given that GSP is the #2 PPV draw in the UFC (only behind Brock Lesnar). The card also features what appears to be Randy Couture’s retirement fight (against Lyoto Machida). It features a solid bout between Mark Hominick and Jose Aldo. So, the PPV numbers should be good, right? I can’t imagine that the internal estimates for Zuffa heading into this PPV are low, but maybe they know something we don’t on that front? UFC announced on Wednesday night that all UFC 129 prelims will be streamed on their Facebook page.)

Whether last night’s ESPN2 airing is a blip on the radar screen or not, one thing is clear — UFC moving away from Spike TV would give Bellator the critical opening they need to get back on a much more favorable platform to build a hardcore audience for their product. That’s why this game of chicken we are seeing with UFC/Spike TV is important. It’s the one shot Bjorn Rebney has for long-term survival. If UFC bails on Spike TV and Bellator takes over that spot on the network platform, he can either sell the company or convince money marks to put more money into the deal.

As for why Bellator moving away from MTV2 to Spike would be so important for their long-term growth, Jordan Breen spelled out on his Tuesday radio show.

“I think this is the thing with Bellator that stands out about their particular ratings. If you want people to care about your product, it has to start out with hardcores. For instance, we know now that the TUF ratings are slumping for the UFC but we know that they’re never going to go below a certain basement because there’s a certain number of people that are really passionate about the UFC and are going to watch regardless. Bellator don’t enjoy this because they don’t have that kind of hardcore penetration, they haven’t built a basement, yet, a certain number of people that regardless of what else is on, the time change, are going to watch their product. And, so, when their second card is the best card that they’ve drawn and from week-to-week the ratings vary so radically, I mean there is no rhyme or reason to the ratings, yet, at all. I mean, the second week was their best. The first two weeks were strong and then, from there, it’s been completely scatter-shot all over the place. Assuredly, this is a week you’d expect to do well with no competition otherwise in the MMA sphere and it did very, very poorly. I think it points to the fact that they’re relying on the patronage strictly of people clicking through the channels to MTV2 and they’re not doing a good job at it.

“I think you have the over-reliance on ‘hey, people are clicking through the channels on Saturday night, they’ll see fighting, they’ll stop.’ This is true in some capacities but it’s not great for stability because when you get to a weekend, for instance, with the NBA playoffs, the NHL playoffs, and everything else that’s going on like this past weekend and weekends to come, what you can expect is, you know, it’s hard to say. It becomes a total grab bag as to whether or not the ratings will be passable or laughable. So, I think this is a by-product of Bellator going all-in on an audience which is going to be fleeting and fair-weather to say the very least.”

Being on a channel whose demographics are touted strongest for 10-12 year olds is a lot different than the audience Spike TV attracts.

“I think they miscalculated. MTV2 said we’re going to give you Saturday night, that’s all we’re really offering. Bellator wanted to accept because it represented good demography. I mean, it’s 18-to-34, it’s disposable income, it’s the kinds of things that you want. However, I think they underestimated how fleeting of a viewership it is. People don’t put on MTV2 and leave it there, they just flick by a lot and the kind of people that are often going by MTV2 I don’t think are people that are… I don’t want to say that they are not people that can be hardcore MMA fans because you can find a hardcore MMA would-be fan anywhere I think, but it’s not as though they were on FX and even though it’s a bit older you get people that are more locked in front of their television on a weeknight and would be more prone to sitting down and watching that kind of thing. I just think there’s been some real miscues in deciding why MTV2, why Saturday night was a good idea and why the kinds of people that watch on MTV2 on a Saturday night and I think it’s just a big miscalculation at this point in time and until they can do something to get that basement foundation, that 150,000-200,000 people that are going to watch every single weekend regardless, true hardcore fans who care about that product, the ratings are going to continue to be all over the place, completely up to the whims of whatever 16 year olds on a Saturday night might otherwise be watching.

“If they offered any weeknight to Bellator, it would have been a better call even if the 18-to-34 demographic for MTV2 seems more appealing because we’re seeing now this is fair-weather, flighty, channel-flicking to the max. On top of that, we have so much MMA now I think you need to be wary of… you know, I talked about establishing like a foundation of hardcore fans, it’s even hard to do that on Saturday nights. People, even nerdy MMA fans that obsessively, you know, take in everything about the sport, they still want to have a life. People want to go do things on Saturday night. People don’t want to feel like a slave to their hobby. It makes it not fun. So, people are faced with the notion of every single Saturday night feeling, I don’t know, behooved to watch Bellator. That’s not a good environment, at all.”

The stakes are high for the UFC & Spike TV relationship. Will Bellator be Spike TV’s ace-in-the-hole if UFC leaves the channel?

Topics: Bellator, Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 29 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

29 Responses to “Peek-a-boo: UFC on ESPN2”

  1. Chromium says:

    As someone who has been a tv ratings nerd on-and-off, this is a really excellent article. I would add that lower ratings and viewer samples tend to be inherently less accurate (not that Bellator isn’t getting low ratings, just that the number of viewers may not be as varied as the numbers suggest due to the low sample size), so maybe there’s less inconsistency.

    Otherwise, fabulous article and I agree that Bellator absolutely 100% would have been better off with a weeknight. They wouldn’t have to face UFC prelims, they wouldn’t be on the least watched night of the week. Thursday in particular would have been ideal. People wouldn’t have seen any major-league MMA for at least 5 days (well, outside of TUF), and so they’d get viewers who are jonesin’ for some fights, who generally have to get up for work or school in the morning so they’d be at home anyway.

    Right now, MTV Networks (which controls Spike) can keep Bellator simmering on the back-burner, just so they can have leverage with the UFC, and also an emergency replacement plan. This may keep Bellator alive through the end of the year.

    It will not keep them alive forever. If the UFC doesn’t leave Spike TV then Bellator will continue to lose money, and potentially canceled on top of that. I don’t know how Plainfield Assets Management feels about these sorts of investments (it’s not at all uncommon to make an investment of this type know that the first year or two will lose money), but I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt the need to sever at that point.

  2. 45 Huddle says:

    1) Chromium is correct. Nielson has been questioned if their sample size is big enough considering the number of viewing options there are today. I wouldn’t put tons of stock in a difference between 130,000 and 175,000.

    2) When one opportunity closes another opens. Despite losing a sponsorship deal from a gambling website, the fact that ESPN might not want as much poker on their television could help the UFC. ESPN is a great channel for the UFC if the right deal is done. It could also open the way for the UFC on ABC. And for people saying the UFC can’t get the exposure they get with SpikeTV…. ESPN is known to do Poker specials for hours at a time…. So if they just did the same with the UFC instead, it would still be a lot of exposure, only on a top tier cable channel instead of a 2nd rate one. A huge win.

    3) I saw a lot of people bash the primetime ratings. This is a perfect example of why it’s useless to be critical of the ratings. It’s all about getting the show out there in as man avenues as possible. SpikeTV, ESPN, UFC.com, YouTube…. Perhaps Versus might show it. A lot of people will see some sort of hype video for this PPV, and that’s great.

    4) I’ve had the opposite viewpoint on the hype for this show. It feels like the are starting the hype early and things are starting to heat up faster then usual. This is going to be an epic show.

    5) All of the prelim fights are going to be on Facebook. Hopefully that is the norm from now on. It’s a great and wonderful thing. Not always the best quality but still great…..

    Miguel Torres is now going to be fighting Demetrious Johnson. I think Torres loses the fight. He has a hard time with talented speed fighters.

    • Jonathan says:

      “perfect example of why it’s useless to be critical of the ratings”

      Is this only the case when it comes to UFC ratings, or ratings in general?

      A lot of people are down on Bellator because of their low ratings, so I am just seeking a qualification.

      • 45 Huddle says:

        I was speaking directly about countdown show ratings.

        It’s an advertisement. Any viewership for a 30 minute ad is great. And they put it online for more people to view it.

        I’ve always thought 1 million viewers was the baseline for a fight card to matter. For a countdown show, anything above zero is a success.

        • Michaelthebox says:

          “For a countdown show, anything above zero is a success.”

          Only if there are no opportunity costs to providing the countdown show, which is not the case.

  3. Keith Harris says:

    UFC moving to Spike TV is certainly a golden carrot for Bjorn Rebney to cling on to, but there are no guarantees that it will pan out even if UFC moves its programming to another network. It didn’t work out for Paul Heyman at the height of wrestling’s popularity when WWE moved from USA to Spike (then TNN) and TNT cancelled all its wrestling programming. However, it did work out for the more clueless Dixie Carter when WWE moved back to TNA in 2005. This time I’m not sure I’d be too optimistic. Given that UFC’s ratings are on the slide and Bellator aren’t lighting the world on fire on MTV2 I could see Spike giving up on MMA programming completely if UFC jumped ship and overhauling their network. This could be bad news for TNA too, given that they’ve been treading ratings water for years and are showing no signs of growth.

  4. Kelvin says:

    Good stuff Zach..in regards to why it aired on ESPN…I don’t think it’s anything related to Zuffa worry about internal PPV estimates in regards to this show…just simply another avenue to get the word out…while possibly countering what Spike is doing as you all have alluded to thus far.

    UFC 129 with over 50,000 present is the type of show that could potentially convert that casual fan into a more consistent buyer IF the show delivers. The atomosphere will be electric.

    In regards to Bellator on Spike…ehh..it would certainly be better than their current situation on MTV2…but I don’t see Zuffa leaving Spike unless they get a better deal…because the both need one another IMO.

  5. Steve4192 says:

    The UFC will never leave Spike … not completely.

    Spike’s carpet bombing of Zuffa programming is too important to them. No other network can deliver the male 18-35 demographic and schedule 40 hours a week of Zuffa infomercials like Spike can. Zuffa might reduce their footprint on Spike, but they will never abandon it. That relationship is just too valuable to both brands.

    Bellator has no chance whatsoever of landing on Spike. Even a greatly reduced UFC presence is more appealing to Spike than Bellator is.

    • 45 Huddle says:

      Your last paragraph sums it up perfectly.

      Even if they left Unleashed on Spike it’s still enough of a bone to throw them. Perhaps add in 4 free cards a year and even a few 3 month old UFC replays and it’s still 10 times better on Bellator.

      The more channels the UFC is on the better. No different then the major sports leagues.

      • Jonathan says:

        Agree 110% with you here 45 Huddle

        Bellator is done for. Their fights are not as good as what the UFC puts on, their “champions” would be mid-tier talent in the UFC at best, and their ratings pale in comparison to what the UFC puts on. They are not 1/10th as well managed and branded like the UFC is, and they are going to be just another name in the long list of companies that tried to cut a piece of the UFC pie for themselves and starved themselves to death as a result.

        The sooner Bellator, DREAM, K-1, and the other JMMA orgs fold, the better the sport of MMA will be as a whole.

        The UFC IS the sport, and there is absolutely, positively no denying that, and to be frank, if it is NOT the UFC, then it DOES NOT MATTER.

        • Light23 says:

          I’m not sure why you want JMMA and Bellator to fold, or why you’re even comparing them to the UFC at this point.

          The UFC “won”. They have all the top talent. Bellator and JMMA are zero competition. They’re certainly not Strikeforce or Pride.

          It’s still nice to have some small MMA promotions around that put on random fights.

      • Chris says:

        That is one thing, UFC on ESPN or ABC is bigger for the sport but UFC on Spike is good for both.

        It gets Spike viewers and it gives the UFC basically its own channel.

        every single commercial break UFC promo’s are aired, unleashed, hours of programming each week for the UFC.

        ESPN aint aring 10 straight hours of UFC like Spike will.

        I think do TUF on Spike, do a few fight night deals and look to get on NBC or ABC/ESPN.

        • 45 Huddle says:

          That’s the big next step…. Getting on Network TV.

          The NFL lockout might help that along….

  6. David m says:

    Ufc 129 feels kind of strangely buzz-less, given the 55k tickets sold. This is because nobody knows who jake shields is, except those who saw him eek out a questionable decision against talented mental midget kampmann, who thrives at being an idiot and costing himself fights he should clearly win.

    Anyone who saw shield fight kampmann knows he has no shot in hell to beat gsp, so there is no real drama. Couture v Lyoto hasn’t gotten much hype because randy is just a part time fighter now, and nobody knows hominick or thinks he can beat jose.

    Further, while jon jones has gotten so much hype for the way he savagely mauls people, gsp has won like 6 fights in a row by dominant, drama-less decision. He is scientific in his approach and not a sadist like jones or brock or cain or bj.

    • Jonathan says:

      I made similar comparisons nearly two months ago when I said that this event was not larger than UFC 100, and I caught some flack for saying so.

    • Light23 says:

      Shields say he cut 20lbs before the Kampmann fight. While the exact figure is up in the air, it’s not hard to believe that messed up his weight and had a huge cut to make near the end.

      This fight is honestly 60/40 in favour of GSP. When GSP sounds pissed that everybody expects him to walk through Shields, he’s not hyping the fight. He’s generally annoyed that everybody is writing off one of his biggest tests.

      Don’t get me wrong – GSP isn’t going to get dominated, or is the fight going to be razor close the whole way. But Shields is insanely talented at BJJ, great at wrestling, and not as incapable on his feet as you’d think. When you match that with his tenacity, GSP is in for a tough fight.

      Shields will take a beating, but will threaten with the takedown from the first minute to the twenty-fifth. GSP will not finish him.

  7. Jonathan says:

    And does this mean that Josh Gross is now credentialed once again?

    It would be hard to deny the guy that works for the company airing your shows.

    I am going to assume that he is, and I am happy for Josh Gross.

    I think that alot of people are learning that if you are not in the bed with the UFC so to speak, than you have zero meaningful access to the UFC.

    In the near future, I foresee Sherdog.com negotiating some special deal with the UFC to provide some sort of unique insight and/or hilarity. Some kind of a deal, but I am not sure what all it will entail.

    You heard it here first.

    • Steve4192 says:

      Josh Gross doesn’t work for ESPN. He works for ESPN.com. The network guys don’t give two shits about the .com guys. Nothing will change. The ESPN on-air talent will continue to be credentialed while Josh Gross is stuck on the outside looking in.

      • Josh Gross is on MMALIve on almost a weekly basis these days, doing skype segments with Jon Anik…..so JG is ESPN on-air talent…so they must at least give one shit about him…

  8. 45 Huddle says:

    http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/news/story?id=6391391

    I’ve seen a lot of people on MMA websites bashing the UFC over this article, but I think it actually shows how good they are doing right now. UFC is 12th on the list of 30 sports with their top paid athlete, which of course is Brock Lesnar at $5.6 Million.

    So the UFC, after only being popular for like 6 years, is already close to the Top 10 for their top earning athlete. That is amazing. He’s above the top female tennis earner and slightly behind the highest paid male golfer. WOW!!

    And if you look at the 11 sports above them, they are all either American or international staples of sports….. Auto Racing, Basketball, Baseball, Boxing, Football, Men’s Golf, Hockey, Horse Racing, Poker, Soccer, & Men’s Tennis.

    Of those 11, forget about Poker because you have to pay to play. So of the Top 10 above the UFC, the real oddball is BOXING…..

    Every other sport, the athletes compete many times a year. The pay is spread out across many athletes. Boxing is at the top of the list with Manny Pacquiao being tied with A-Rod for the highest paid athlete. It shows are skewed the pay is towards the top guys, which is so much different then basically all other major sports.

    Of course, I’ve seen a lot of people using this to bash the UFC and talk about how Brock isn’t even as close as Manny. But boxing has issues because of that payscale. The UFC is more like the rest of the sports on the list where the money is flowing around to more athletes. Of course pay will eventually go up, but for only being 6 years in to their popularity, that’s an impressive spot on the list. I bet b the next 6 years, the top guy will be making $10 Million and be Top 7 or 8….

  9. Chris says:

    Do you think if the UFC left Spike and Bellator moved to Spike they would do anything close to UFC numbers?

    You think weekly Bellator shows do 1.5 mill, do anything close to 2.5 mill peak that UFC Fight Nights do?

    If thats Spikes plan its a stupid one, if they think Bellator is gonna replace the UFC and get anywhere near the same viewers they are bat shit crazy.

    • Steve4192 says:

      I think the bigger issue is that Bellator doesn’t have enough content to fill the giant hole in their schedule that would be created by the UFC leaving. There is no ‘Bellator: Unleashed’ or ‘Bellator: Countdown’ or any Bellator equivalent of the other Zuffa shows that prop up the SpikeTV programming schedule. Bellator would fill two hours of programming time per week and that is all.

      • Zheroen says:

        “Because alternative Bellator programming does not currently exist, that means it will never exist.”

        Great logic.

  10. cutch says:

    They apparently wanted King of the Cage before the UFC re-signed with them and why aren’t people mentioning Strikeforce? I would guess that Spike would want them before Bellator anyway and they are both under the Zuffa banner.

  11. Mr. Roadblock says:

    Who produces the hype shows? Zuffa or Spike? I haven’t watched one of those in ages so I don’t know anymore.

    I was under the impression that Spike produces those shows. So I would imagine Zuffa needed Spike’s permission to put it on ESPN.

    But to the larger issue I think it makes a lot of sense for ESPN to get involved with UFC. They already distribute UFC shows in the UK. UFC is year round programming that brings in a solid number.

    It feels to me as a religious watcher of Friday Night Fights that ESPN is guaging interest in MMA with the discussion show that follows boxing. They’ve begun hyping it up more during FNF and tossing to it for a preview.

    Right now MMA is the only big sport that ESPN covers that doesn’t have a presence on ESPN or ABC in some fashion. I would be surprised if UFC didn’t end up there.

    Then the question becomes do they fold in the SF fighters or keep the SF brand and put that on Spike TV the way they used WEC on Versus.

  12. I don’t know if UFC will or won’t leave Spike, but it looks like Spike is trying to expand on/beyond the 18-34 demo, trying to trend a little older and more female… which would lead to better profitability for them…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/29/business/media/29adco.html?_r=1&ref=media

    even if UFC re-ups with Spike we may not see the Wall to Wall blocks of UFC programming that Spike tends to run with at times….though, they would still play a significant role in Spike Programming…

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