If you thought Gina Carano was big for Strikeforce, it turns out Fedor Emelianenko is even bigger. According to MMA Junkie, the launch of the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix tournament, headlined by Fedor Emelianenko vs. Antonio Silva, averaged 741,000 viewers and peaked with 1.1 million for the main event. Those are new records for MMA and Strikeforce on Showtime.
The previous ratings record for a Strikeforce event was Strikeforce: Carano vs. Cyborg, which was held in August of 2009 and featured a main event women's welterweight title fight between "the face of women's MMA" in Gina Carano and current champion Cris Cyborg. That fight raked in 576,000 viewers with a peak of 856,000.
Yahoo!'s Kevin Iole has more numbers:
Strikeforce averaged a 2.12 among males 18-49, a 2.35 among males 18-34 and 741k viewers. Peaked at 1.1m viewers during Fedor fight
A few points here. First, Showtime's investment in combat sports has not always been mutually beneficial. The way both boxing and MMA have been presented have been roundly criticized by fans who prefer market leaders habits and expertise. Some have gone as far to suggest that Showtime's involvement is perfunctory at best and harmful at worst.
The reality is Showtime is shaping up to have a banner year in 2011. On the boxing side, Top Rank's defection from HBO pay-per-view to Showtime (as well as the CBS platform) has helped tilt the balance of power in who gets marquee fights and how they are presented. It could also eventually mean, in a best case scenario, a return to network television for the sweet science.
On the MMA side, Strikeforce has proven to be a reliable ratings and content partner for Showtime. The model and organization need to evolve if they are going to be a reliable engine for creating superstars, but both parties are finding the arrangement mutually beneficial.
As for Fedor, I was down on the notion he should return as an alternate in the tournament. I may have to re-think that now. If he wins and wins impressively against the loser of Fabricio Werdum vs. Alistair Overeem, his ratings prowess - even with this loss - would only be ignored by the foolish. Injecting him back into the tournament is a tricky exercise and a risky proposition, but if Scott Coker is clever enough, there is a clear ratings boon.
This is also a huge jump in ratings for Emelianenko on Showtime. His previous fight with Fabricio Werdum netted only 412,000, peaking with approximately 700,000. The jump in numbers is partly a function of the growth of Strikeforce, partly the press surrounding the heavyweight tournament and partly a desire to see Fedor return to action. The loss has to hurt his drawing power slightly, but tournament press is contributing non-negligible coverage. Even with his loss Strikeforce is still in net gain territory.
What does this mean for Strikeforce's desire to enter pay-per-view? It's still unclear. We have to see how the tournament unfolds, if/when Emelianenko returns and if there is still deep enough interest in Carano. But if this past weekend's events are any indication, Strikeforce may have a hit on their hands. They've created a mechanism to prove their heavyweight division's mettle, keep interest high all year long, potentially create stars and gain market share.
Not too shabby, Strikeforce. Not too shabby at all.