It was just over a year ago that the UFC’s grand experiment on network television began.

On Nov. 12, 2011, then-champion Cain Velasquez faced No. 1 contender Junior dos Santos for the UFC heavyweight title. That night, 5.7 million viewers tuned in to watch dos Santos take the belt from Velasquez in explosive knockout fashion after just over a minute of combat. Clearly, the excitement inherent to the UFC’s debut on Fox coupled with the prestige of the promotion’s heavyweight title was enough to lure in a sizable portion of the night’s television audience.

In the events that followed, however, the UFC on Fox experienced a significant ratings decline. The UFC’s second offering on Fox, this one without a title match but featuring two more fights than UFC on Fox 1, only garnered 4.7 million viewers. That number declined more with the next two events, bottoming out with UFC on Fox 4, which got just 2.4 million viewers.

Fortunately for both the UFC and Fox, that trend was halted with UFC on Fox 5, which early numbers indicate averaged 4.4 million viewers and peaked at 4.78, nearly doubling the worrisome ratings from the previous two events on Fox. So, what was so different about Saturday’s event that led to the ratings rebound? Let’s examine several factors:

First, the presence of a title fight almost certainly lent greater credibility to UFC on Fox 5 than any of its three predecessors. Sure, Rashad Evans vs. Phil Davis and Nate Diaz vs. Jim Miller are decent fights in the eyes of people who have followed MMA for more than a little while, but to casual or new fans—the ones the UFC and Fox are trying to attract most—these names don’t mean much. By providing a little extra zing to the card through headlining it with a championship fight, it satisfies both the seasoned fans (who will enjoy seeing two of a division’s best fighters do battle on free network television) and newer fans (for whom a title fight seems more important, regardless of the specific competitors).

As if a championship fight wasn’t enough to organically grow viewership for UFC on Fox 5, the promotion did itself another solid by booking two very well-known fighters on the main card to support the lightweight title fight. While these UFC greats might not be considered fighters at the tops of their respective divisions any longer, there was a time not too long ago when the names B.J. Penn and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua rung out loudly among fans of mixed martial arts and beyond. The return of Penn was especially intriguing (if ultimately disappointing) given his former dominance and recent absence.

Therefore, it would seem that one way to boost viewership for UFC events meant for mass consumption on national network television would be to combine a championship contest with another bout featuring one of the handful of fighters famous enough to resonate outside of the MMA community. The UFC has, perhaps, hypothesized in a similar fashion, as its next event on Fox will feature both a flyweight championship fight as well as a light heavyweight bout between Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (the big name) and Glover Teixeira (who will play the role of spoiler, a la Rory MacDonald).

The main card of UFC on Fox 6 will also feature some other fights with high entertainment potential, including a lightweight contenders’ bout between Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone, who between them have nine UFC or WEC “Fight of the Night” awards. That fight will obviously appeal on paper more to veteran MMA fans, but any new fans who are tuning in for Rampage and happen to catch Pettis/Cerrone will be in for a treat.

Another factor that could have influenced the UFC on Fox 5’s comparatively better ratings is the relative competition from the other networks present during the broadcast. UFC on Fox 3 aired opposite the NBA Playoffs as well as the undercard of a Floyd Mayweather Jr./Miguel Cotto boxing pay-per-view event, and UFC on Fox 4 competed with the 2012 Summer Olympics airing on NBC. This time around, there was still the potential threat of the Manny Pacquiao/Juan Manuel Marquez pay-per-view undercard to draw fight fans away from UFC on Fox, but there is really no other competitive free programming on a Saturday night in December aside from maybe some early-season NBA games. In that way, scheduling the event for that night served to the UFC’s advantage.

In the future, however, perhaps the UFC and Fox would consider airing their events in a time other than Saturday night. Again, because the UFC on Fox events are meant to attract as many new fans to MMA as possible, wouldn’t broadcasting a UFC on Fox card during a time when more people are traditionally watching TV make more sense? Sure, most existing MMA fans have gotten used to spending a certain number of Saturday nights on the couch, since that is when the UFC usually airs its pay-per-view events, but new fans might be reluctant to give up one of their cherished weekend evenings to watch a sport they only sort of understand.

This preference toward other Saturday night activities could be reflected in the ratings data for the UFC’s five Fox events thus far. After all, the shows got their lowest ratings in May and August, times of the year when the last thing many people want to do on a Saturday night is watch TV. The UFC shows from Nov. 2011, Jan. 2012 and Dec. 2012, when the weather outside is more frightful in many places in the country, did comparatively better ratings. Perhaps this is a coincidence, but it might be a good idea for the UFC and Fox to investigate the possibility of an alternative showtime for their events, especially during the summer.

Airing the events on a weeknight, as the UFC had done numerous times through its partnership with Spike, could result in a ratings increase simply due to the convenience factor. No matter what time of year it is, people are more apt to spend the night in front of the TV during the workweek than on a Saturday night. Another possible option would be for Fox to fill the Sunday afternoon gap left by the NFL’s absence from January through September with UFC events.

After the Super Bowl, Sunday afternoons have typically been reserved for NBA and NHL along with whatever other lesser sports get airtime on the various networks. Eventually, the NBA and NHL playoffs end, leaving sports fans with mid-season baseball and golf to pass the time on their lazy July Sundays. Why not schedule a UFC show or two in these timeslots? When NFL teams have bye weeks during the season, their fans don’t just skip that week of football, they’re probably tuning in to other games just because they’re on. It would stand to reason, then, that a properly promoted UFC card might attract a decent number of viewers strictly based on the “I want to watch sports on Sunday afternoon” factor.

UFC President Dana White and the rest of the UFC brass probably breathed a heavy sigh of relief upon seeing the ratings uptick for UFC on Fox 5. The promotion’s partnership with Fox is supposed to serve as an avenue to rope in new fans and as proof that the American sporting community on the whole was ready to bring MMA into the mainstream fold, and the declining ratings for UFC on Fox 2, 3 and 4 almost certainly had both partners questioning whether they’d made the right choice. Still, the UFC might have found a matchmaking formula that works by combining a title fight with the presence of a big draw elsewhere on the main card. It seems to have done the trick for this latest UFC on Fox event, and time will tell if that combination yields even better ratings for UFC on Fox 6.

Photo: Fox cameraman (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.