Two and a half years ago, almost to the day, the UFC and Fox announced a seven-year deal worth an estimated $90 million to $100 million annually. Not only did this sever the seven-year relationship between the UFC and Spike TV, but it was seen by many as the dawn of a new golden age in MMA. The UFC would be delivering free fights on broadcast and cable television as part of an agreement with one of the biggest media companies in the world.

To date there have been 10 UFC events to air on Fox, 27 on cable television and four seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, as well as their subsequent finales. With the creation of Fox Sports 1 (FS1) and Fox Sports 2 (FS2) last summer, the number of UFC events, television specials and shoulder-programming has had a dramatic increase as the startup networks utilize their exclusivity over UFC content to try to establish a better foothold in the cable-sports market, which has been dominated by ESPN for a generation.

Without a doubt, the UFC has grown and benefited greatly from its deal with Fox. The ability to show fights on broadcast and network television has allowed the promotion to increase the number of fights offered per year and give fans a chance to see marquee fights for free. It has also enabled the UFC to offer fighters the opportunity to fight more often and earn a paycheck.

It seems the UFC is getting everything it ever wanted and more, but it begs the question: is this truly a mutually beneficial relationship or a case where one side holds a better hand than they’re letting on?

To find out the answer to this, and many more questions, we must go back to the beginning.

When the UFC put on its first card on Fox, it was offered as a bonus fight and seen as a trial run for what was to come. Although the UFC’s agreement with Fox didn’t start until January of 2012, thanks to the UFC’s contract with Spike TV it was permitted to show fights on broadcast television without violating the terms of those agreements. So, fans were given a card headlined by UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and challenger Junior dos Santos. The event was a one-hour special which was originally supposed to include the airing of two fights, but instead turned out to be just the one. The fight lasted all of 64 seconds with dos Santos scoring a first-round knockout. The rest of the broadcast was filled with analysis, promo clips, interviews and every other thing expected of a major sports broadcast, just not expected by UFC fans.

Despite garnering an average viewership of 5.7 million, peaking at 8.8 million, and being offered for free, criticism was malignant. Why was only one fight shown? How come the NFL music was playing? Who are these guys on my television trying to tell me about the fight? What’s with the early start time?

While some concerns are more valid than others, many of these can be chalked up to the growing pains of not only the UFC, but Fox’s entry into new territory. The UFC maintained its stance on controlling the commentary team, but Fox would produce the pre- and post-fight shows. This is an arrangement that is understandable since the UFC has been producing fights for years, but Fox has a wealth of experience and knowledge of broadcasting and promoting major sporting events. This particular fight was a special event, so many of things had to be crammed into one place, instead of spread out over several hours of programming throughout the day. It also explains the music, which can be more accurately described as the Fox Sports theme.

Television networks plan their scheduled months in advance, so to add a live sporting event into what is usually an already packed fall schedule is nothing short of a miracle. Saturdays are also normally dominated by college football, so Fox would not want to disrupt its affiliates by moving a staple of broadcast revenue in order to take a chance on an underappreciated, yet growing, sport. Furthermore, Manny Pacquiao was fighting that same night, so everyone involved wanted to make sure the UFC was done before Pacquiao walked into the ring.

Because a title fight—for the heavyweight championship, nonetheless—was offered for free and promises were made to improve overall quality and have full fight cards shown, all seemed to be forgiven. That is, until Fox decided to introduce the robot mascot.

Cartoon robots may resonate with football fans differently than those in MMA, but one can’t help but think of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots when they show up. At this point, the UFC on Fox intro is more welcomed than detested, if for no other reason than for the sake of irony. However, when a grown man dancing around in a robot costume disrupts the broadcast to the point where Joe Rogan points it out, you know you’re doing something ridiculous.

This may be all part of the Fox Sports branding, but it definitely showed a disconnect between the producers at Fox and the sport they were showing. Maybe the UFC didn’t see this as a concession, but instead viewed is as progression, since very few companies know more about mainstream sports than Fox. Either way, MMA fans are a very quick to judge, detail-oriented breed, and they weren’t going to let this one slip by anytime soon. Also, it’s unlikely a casual spectator would tune in and say to themselves, “What, no robots? What is wrong with this sport? I am not watching this.” But hey, the UFC is on Fox, so who cares, right?

Follow-up shows have yet to recapture or even come close to the same ratings that the debut show produced, which has brought about arguably the most scrutiny from critics, to the ire of UFC President Dana White. Of course, it’s hard to imagine a world where anyone could match the ratings of a fight which included the title, “UFC heavyweight champion of the world.” But it shows that unless the UFC goes big with its broadcast cards, it will never break the coveted 10-million viewer barrier.

One would think this would also be a goal for the Fox network, since it has invested so much into the brand. But for some reason, there seems to be little concern from either Fox or the UFC about the ratings performances, and everyone seems more than happy with the results. It is no easy thing to build a brand and grow a sport, and it’s not something anyone can expect to do overnight, but with the UFC now over two years into its deal, it would seem the honeymoon period is over and it’s time to see if big numbers are even still possible.

Although the last event was a pay-per-view and not a Fox card, it showed the heavy hand of Fox. The UFC traditionally does its Super Bowl weekend card in Las Vegas, but since it was Fox’s turn to air the Super Bowl this year, the network asked the UFC to do the event in New Jersey in an effort to co-promote the events and the sports.

It seemed like a perfect idea and a great opportunity to expose UFC fighters to a wider NFL audience, but then concerns about the weather emerged and it was reported the Super Bowl may have to take place on Saturday. So, Fox asked the UFC what the promotion’s plan was if that occurred, and if it was possible for the uFC to move its event to Sunday. This seems like something which would be of less concern if UFC 169 took place in Las Vegas. Fortunately, things went off without a hitch, but it still put the UFC in a situation where it could have had to move an entire major event at the last minute to accommodate another sport.

The last couple of years have seen more growth and change in the UFC than almost any other time in the company’s history. This year, the number of events is expected to surpass 40, and although overall ratings and average pay-per-view buys may be down, that is just the economics of supply and demand. It only becomes market saturation when the events cease to be profitable.

The UFC is a global company with ambitions far beyond its four broadcast cards per year. The promotion has launched its own digital subscription service, almost single-handedly allowed for the creation of FS1 and FS2, increased the number of weight classes and added female divisions. It did all of this while having to compete with its own programming on Spike TV for a year and then seeing its primary rival in the U.S. television market fill that spot on its old network home. The UFC even had to rebrand its flagship show, The Ultimate Fighter, more than once and endure an unprecedented number of main-event lineups changed due to injuries.

The UFC has adapted to change in the past, however, and will continue to do so in the future. Let’s just hope the promotion focuses on change for the good of the sport, and not change for the good of a network or another sport. And that’s the bottom line.

About The Author

Associate Editor/Senior Writer