The UFC on TV has gotten old. This assertion refers not only to regular UFC programming, but to those who are viewing the product. A recent study conducted by the Sports Business Daily Journal indicated that the median age of UFC television viewers in 2016 was 49; this contrasts with the median age of UFC television viewers being 34 in 2006. Additionally, the UFC recently had their lowest rating ever for a UFC on Fox card.
While the sharp increase in the age of viewers has caught the attention of many MMA pundits, very few solutions have been proposed.
Attracting a younger audience is a paramount responsibility for any television property. However, unlike more traditional sports like the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, the UFC does not present the pinnacle of their sport on cable or broadcast television. Therefore, remedying the UFC’s television woes are not realistically solved by putting the very best fights on TV.
Before any discussion of “fixing” the UFC’s television problems, it should be noted that the Sports Business Daily Journal study took data from 2016. Undoubtedly, 2016 was one of the most successful years in UFC history. It was a huge year in terms of fans buying the UFC on pay-per-view, so this is not to say that UFC business was in the dumps during the time of this study. Many of these issues are symptomatic of the current television landscape.
What that in mind here are some ideas to improve the overall presentation of the UFC as a television product.
•Focus on a different reality show: The UFC might very well have remained an underground phenomenon if it were not for the popularity of “The Ultimate Fighter” during the mid-2000s. The UFC was presenting a compelling window into a niche sport, while also promoting their pay-per-view business during a time when reality television was still a novel concept.
Well, in 2017 viewers have moved on from “The Ultimate Fighter.” Despite recent twists to the show like granting the winner a title shot, or filling the show with UFC castaways, the ratings of the show have not improved. Perhaps it is time to move on from the concept. The next season of the show will feature an introduction of a Women’s Bantamweight division. While this concept will garner intrigue, after it is over, what concepts are left?
Under WME-IMG the UFC is more embedded with Hollywood than at any time in their history. Those connections can be useful in reshaping the look of the UFC’s reality television presence.
•Pacing: Scroll through Twitter during a Saturday evening when a UFC Fight Night and you will surely find no shortage of MMA pundits complaining about their exhaustion. These grievances are not unfounded. Not only do UFC events run later than most other American sporting events, but FS1 Fight Night cards tend to drag on without any significant action.
To an extent, this is understandable. A typical UFC fight can last 10 seconds or 15 fifteen minutes. The promotion is forced to provide filler content between fights to fill and overrun their timeslot. Quite frankly, these shows are much more enjoyable watching on a delay with the ability to fast-forward through the noise. However, time shift viewing totally nullifies the value of live sports.
If these long drawn out cards are a necessary evil, it might behoove the UFC to fill the non-fight space with worthwhile programing. Dana White is never at a loss for words, so instead of relying on TMZ to produce the latest White soundbite, why not interview him regularly on these cards. The truth is, much of the content utilized between fights is non-essential programming that most UFC fans have already seen.
•Reintroduce a degree of independent journalism: Fox’s television coverage of the UFC is largely a one-stop promotional vehicle. While this approach helps the UFC stay on message during all of their programing, it also makes most of the programing very vanilla. Fox infamously parted ways with respected MMA journalist Ariel Helwani in 2016, effectively ending any veneer of an independent voice for the network. By distancing themselves from any adversarial reporting or analysis, Fox’s UFC coverage offers no appointment viewing.
If a UFC on Fox card could present legitimate breaking news, hard-hitting interviews, and analysis of controversial topics, viewers could rely on the network for UFC information in the same way that NBA fans rely on ESPN for NFL, NBA, and MLB news.
•Take some cues from Bellator: While it might sound like sacrilege to some, the UFC could utilize some elements of Bellator’s television presentation. Bellator’s formula of being the “legends division” of MMA is much less laughable in 2017 than it was in prior years.
The UFC still has fighters such as B.J. Penn, Anderson Silva, Vitor Belfort, Lyoto Machida, and Diego Sanchez under contract. All the above-mentioned fighters would seemingly qualify as Bellator main eventers. There is no reason to believe that the UFC could not place these stars of yesteryear in the main events of their lower tiered UFC Fight Night cards.
Even the most casual of fight fans would remember these names, and perhaps be inclined spend some time checking out how viable these “older” fighters perform in the Octagon.
Aside from the very lucrative money that television provides, the medium can also assist in attracting new and lapsed fans to the product. For all the criticism that Bellator has received for their reliance on names from the past, the fights featuring former UFC names generally do well in the ratings. The UFC can take this concept and make it their own without nearly enough scorn.
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