UFC find themselves in a unique position right now. They are moving from one major broadcast partner to another. FOX has been a good home for UFC the past seven years. They allowed UFC to air basically as much programming as they wanted and paid them well for it. FOX was able to launch FS1 and FS2 largely off the back of UFC. It appears that ESPN will be taking a similar approach, this time for streaming service ESPN+, only now with even more money changing hands.
UFC has an opportunity to change the way they present their product on their new platform. Here are five ways we think UFC could do things differently once they move to ESPN.
1. Start Earlier
Let’s face it. UFC fans are getting older by the day and they don’t seem to be bringing in younger viewers like they used to. The same fans who were crowding bars a decade ago are now warming bottles and changing diapers during prelims. Staying up past 1 AM on the east coast isn’t as easy as it used to be. UFC and ESPN should do their longtime fans a solid and just have their cards start (and most importantly, end) earlier. Even following Bellator’s lead and being done by midnight would be an improvement.
2. Air fewer fights
It will be hard for UFC to end earlier without having to begin their cards while most people aren’t in front of their TVs. An easy solution to his is to just show fewer fights. 12 fights on a card seems to be the norm now, and that’s a bit much for even the most ardent of fans. Cut these shows down to eight fights, maybe ten, and they’ll be much more consumable.
3. Put the best fights on in the middle of the card
UFC’s schedule for their ESPN+ debut will see early prelims on ESPN+, more prelims on ESPN proper, and then back to ESPN+ for the main card. Confusing? Yes. Excessive? Also yes. UFC’s biggest audience that night will likely be for the middle prelims on ESPN. Instead of putting your main card on at 10 on ESPN+, why not put your main event, or at least a few key fights during this middle portion when they have the most eyeballs? It solves the staying up late part for a lot of fans and for those who want to keep watching fights late into the night, they can move along for the ESPN+ portion afterward.
4. Book squash matches
Seeing Canelo Alvarez pick apart and dominate Rocky Fielding this past weekend made me realize that there may be room for squash matches in UFC. Putting these types of fights on free TV makes the most sense. Take an up and coming fighter and put him or her in an easy fight they that will highlight them in front of a big audience. If the B-Side falls out due to injury, he’s easy to replace. This is not a foreign concept to UFC either. Sage Northcutt was given some easy opponents early on as was Mickey Gall.
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5. Book one night tournaments
This would give UFC’s ESPN cards a bit of a hook outside of the weekly grind of promoting shows. Bellator has been doing well with their grand prix format, and ONE is following suit, but these tournaments take months to play out. UFC could book one or two four-person tournaments on a card as a way to get fans to tune in early and stick around to the end of the show. First round matches would be two rounds at the beginning of the show and the finals can be three rounds to close. It would be a nod to UFC’s early history and make TV cards feel more special.