Sometimes, when UFC President Dana White talks it's all bluster. When he says the UFC will be as big as football or European soccer, it's easier to just shrug your shoulders and move on. You don't believe it. Heck, even he doesn't believe it. It's just something he says in interviews that sounds good - and confidence can go a long way. But, sometimes, when Dana White talks it's smart to listen.
Last year he gave an interview to Broadcasting & Cable Editor in Chief Ben Grossman about the UFC's future on television. Not only did he hint rather broadly that he was deep in negotiations with NBC/Universal about a multi-pronged deal, he also suggested that the UFC was on the path to controlling its own television destiny:
Sports Business Journal just came out with a survey asking big names in the industry which sport could start its own network and 4 out of 5 said us. They are right. I agree. That will happen within the next couple years.
Yesterday, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal both reported that the UFC was close to a deal that would give it controlling interest in the G4 Network, a failing network aimed at young men that was recently booted from DirecTV:
Two of the people with knowledge of the NBCUniversal talks said that UFC, which is privately held, could take ownership of 60 percent or more of G4, which is one of the lowest-rated cable channels in Comcast’s portfolio. Its target audience of men ages 18 to 34 overlaps nicely with UFC’s audience on Spike, a unit of Viacom, which has carried a fighting reality show for the last six years.
Spike’s $170 million-a-year deal with UFC for the show, "The Ultimate Fighter," and for live fights expires in six months. Negotiations between Spike and UFC for a new deal started almost one year ago, one of the people said, but broke down after UFC proposed a $325 million-a-year fee, a price that was far steeper than Spike was willing to pay.
Buying a television network is an extremely risky move for a company that has gone out of its way to mitigate risk since hitting it big with the reality show The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. A UFC run channel could be a spectacular hit - or an enormous failure:
1. You control your own destiny. Yesterday, Bloody Elbow.com revealed that the UFC likely won't run any shows in the United Kingdom this year - in part because their television partner at SPIKE TV isn't as flexible with available dates as they might be. With your own network, finding an available programming slot becomes much easier. You can do what you want, when you want.
2. The UFC has more fighters than it knows what to do with. Fighters are limited to two or three bouts a year, often not by choice. There just isn't room on 20 shows to give hundreds of fighters multiple opportunities. Owning a television network opens up opportunities to run more shows, smaller shows, even the possibility of sending UFC fighters to smaller regional events; events that the UFC would in turn broadcast on their network.
The addition of a weekly fight show would help legitimize MMA as a sport, one that has regular news and results to report, and make it feel less like a monthly PPV spectacle. It could potentially go a long way in building a base of sports fans.
3. Twenty four hours of programming space would finally allow the UFC to utilize their vast archives of fight footage. They own tapes for all their own fight broadcasts, as well as a collection of spectacular shows from PRIDE, the long dead but not quite forgotten Japanese promotion. The UFC hasn't done a good job of building a history and mythology for their fighters. That's a big part of what makes sports special - and now there will be a home for potential documentaries and fighter features. Legends aren't built in the cage. They are built on television. Smart 30 for 30 style shows on the sport would be tremendous tools in building individual fighters and mythologizing a sport that now has almost 20 years of history.
1. Running a television network is hard - and the UFC would be starting at the bottom. G4 has been a failure for Comcast's NBC/Universal. It's one of the networks least watched properties, though its audience of video game crazed young men does dovetail nicely with the UFC's target demographic. Unfortunately, the promotion would be starting on a broken network, with their own flagship The Ultimate Fighter failing to find an audience this season despite pulling out all the stops with the inclusion of megastar Brock Lesnar. That does not bode well.
2. The network wouldn't run itself - and White doesn't have a history of delegating responsibility easily. If you've seen him at a UFC event, he micromanages everything, right down to fighter's entrance music and other tiny details. There is a risk that White, already perpetually exhausted, would spend more time than healthy with his new television toy and less time than needed fixing a mixed martial arts business that seems at the tipping point of either being a staple of sports programming or a dying fad.
3. The UFC would be swimming with the sharks in the television industry. It's one thing to run roughshod over the competition in combat sports. In that arena the UFC has deeper pockets and better vision than the competitors. But in the unfamiliar world of television, success isn't always as easy as it seems. The NFL has had to fight tooth and nail to get their fledgling network on cable - and the NFL has seemingly infinite resources and a huge, dedicated fanbase.