With the season premiere of Spike TV's 'The Ultimate Fighter' 13 tonight, and with superstar coach Brock Lesnar on board, what kind of ratings can we expect for the show? As the UFC's largest pay-per-view draw, can he match season 10's record high marks? In short, who is better for TUF ratings: Brock Lesnar or Kimbo Slice?
Let's start with the data on season 10. According to Wikipedia (I've also done by best to verify the numbers and they appear to be accurate), here's how the numbers break down for season 10 of TUF:
- episode No. 1: 4.1 million viewers
- •"TUF 10" episode No. 2: 2.9 million viewers
- •"TUF 10" episode No. 3: 5.3 million viewers (peak: 7.25 million with DVR viewing)
- •"TUF 10" episode No. 4: 2.8 million viewers (peak: 4.89 million with DVR viewing)
- •"TUF 10" episode No. 5: 2.8 million viewers
- •"TUF 10" episode No. 6: 2.8 million viewers
- •"TUF 10" episode No. 7: 2.5 million viewers
- •"TUF 10" episode No. 8: 2.7 million viewers
- •"TUF 10" episode No. 9: 2.5 million viewers
- •"TUF 10" episode No. 10: 2.4 million viewers
- •"TUF 10" episode No. 11/12: 2.6 million viewers
This is, unequivocally, the highest-rated season ever of TUF. You might ask about the early seasons, where stars were born and as the show built momentum, other UFC figures like Matt Hughes, Rich Franklin and B.J. Penn began to appear on the show? Nope:
The Ultimate Fighter Cumulative Ratings:
Season Overall % Change M18-34 % Change 1 1.6 — 2.2 — 2 1.4 -12.5% 2.5 13.6% 3 1.69 20.7% 2.9 15.6% 4 1.24 -26.6% 2.0 -30.1% 5 1.18 -4.8% 1.6 -20.3% 6 1.12 -5.1% 1.5 -4.3% Average 1.37 -5.55% 2.13 -5.1%
One might ask: what about the Forrest Griffin vs Stephan Bonnar bout from the season one finale? Wouldn't that meet or exceed numbers from Kimbo Slice's season? I've long contended that the alleged 10 million viewers figure - the supposed number of people who turned in to the Griffin vs. Bonnar bout as it transpired - is myth (this breakdown of season 1 ratings doesn't even mention it). The actual number is about 3.3 million for that fight and 2.6 million for the finale overall. That's a strong number and it helped propel the series as well as the sport to the next level. But it's also less than half of what Kimbo Slice vs. Roy Nelson - a taped fight - pulled in on season 10.
And even if the number were 10 million, it's never been repeated. It was a viral moment in time, hard to anticipate and nearly impossible to duplicate. Studies have shown what largely determines viralty is something that inspires awe. A live fight on television seems like a reasonable platform for that. Somewhat scripted reality show? Not so much.
There are several reasons Slice's season pulled in strong viewership. There was a mystique factor about Slice heading into the show. Despite his exposure in ESPN the magazine or on CBS, many people were curious to learn more about him. Additionally, Slice was a competitor on the show. The mere fact that he was fighting brought intrigue. That he was doing so against ostensibly legitimate opposition in pursuit of UFC employment, a legitimizing act that many curious fans were hoping to witness. Even after he lost, the show's producers milked his return to fighting episode after episode leaving viewers with the obligation to hang on if they were to witness Slice in action. I suppose having a season of all heavyweights, several with backgrounds in the NFL, probably helped a little as well.
Lesnar is in a far different position. He's much more of a known commodity. There are some who will watch to learn more about him, particularly as his personality is on display and professional image develops. But how high can he realistically push the ratings bar?
My best guess is that tonight's numbers will be strong. Lesnar's mere presence on the show will elevate baseline ratings. The fact that he's done significant amounts of promotion and that the season has been heavily advertised in print, television and radio (I heard an ad on 106.7 The Fan this morning for the show, something I've never heard before) should also help boost results.
From there, though, the picture becomes far less clear. Lesnar and dos Santos don't seem to have much of a rivalry. This is not Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz. There don't appear to be a ton of tense moments to play off of. Moreover, this entire season is a building platform for dos Santos and the Lesnar vs. dos Santos fight at UFC 131. In a very real sense, this season is very much "business as usual": it's equal parts elevating ratings generally as it is UFC 131 fight promotion.
Lesnar is also divorced from the "reality show" elements of the program. Unlike Slice, he doesn't live in the house. He won't be pulling pranks or taking another castmate's food or dumping their clothes into a pool. Much of the manufactured drama that is good for ratings will never feature a single frame of Lesnar.
Lesnar obviously won't be fighting either, something that was the true anchor to Slice's season's ratings. As a coach, one has to assume the ceiling on what ratings opportunities are possible as a function of Lesnar's role are significantly lower than what Slice was able to produce as a fighter.
All of this is to say, don't expect a repeat of season 10's ratings. Lesnar's inclusion in the show will help boost numbers from seasons 11 or 12, but seem unlikely to reproduce the magic of the Kimbo Slice TUF era.
As a combat athlete, Slice is an unmitigated failure. His contribution to mixed martial arts, however, is very real. TUF is critically important to the UFC and the sport generally. The show's often been criticized as boring, meaningless and even deleterious. The former Miami street brawler will never be acknowledged for his contributions in the cage, but outside of the Octagon he did wonders. Ratings fell back to earth in the seasons after Slice's, but he underscored the vitality of the format and gave the show a new lease on life. If Slice's season could produce ratings, doesn't that the format isn't broken?
Brock Lesnar has already proven his worth as a boon to the sport. He's the UFC's top pay-per-view draw and a magnet for casual fan interest in the UFC. On those terms, he is virtually peerless. But the UFC and MMA castaway in Slice may have the last laugh. He's not the UFC champ or even the people's champ, but when it comes to delivering ratings for the most important show in MMA, he's the undisputed king. Not even Lesnar can take that title from him.