This past Friday, just over a million people tuned into the eighth episode of The Ultimate Fighter: Team Carwin vs. Team Nelson. This number was a marked increase from the estimated 676,000 that watched the previous episode, but still far below the average of 1.7 million viewers the show managed to garner during its time on Spike. Needless to say, the UFC’s efforts to grow TUF’s viewership since making the move to FX earlier this year have proven difficult.

To change things up upon its initial migration to the Fox family of networks, the UFC first announced it would broadcast the 15th season of TUF in a new format and on a new night. Where each of the first 14 seasons of the show had been previously taped in a single six-week chunk, edited and then presented to the audience several months later, the first TUF season on FX would be “live.” That is, each week, crews would capture the goings-on in the TUF house, chop them together and then air them each Friday night before a live fight between two contestants.

At first, the idea seemed like a good one. A weekly live broadcast, it stood to reason, would connect viewers more immediately with the TUF participants. The knowledge that the people they were seeing on their screens were sequestered inside the TUF house right now, their actions and interactions being rebroadcast just a few days after they happened, rather than several weeks, would gin up more interest among fight fans for the UFC’s reality competition.

Unfortunately, TUF: Live didn’t go quite as planned. At first, interest was moderate, with the debut episode netting 1.3 million viewers. As the season went on, however, viewership waned considerably, and the last episode before the live finale only generated 875,000 viewers. Novel as it was, the 15th season’s live format did not translate to higher ratings, so the UFC returned to the pre-taped format for Carwin vs. Nelson.

As mentioned above, the current season of The Ultimate Fighter is not performing much better, which is likely one of the reasons the UFC has decided to install light heavyweight champion Jon Jones against the promotion’s top heel, Chael Sonnen, for the next TUF installment. Banking on the combined star power of the two coaches and the promise of 12 weeks of Sonnen’s brilliant brand of trash talk en route to an eventual beatdown at the hands of Jones (live on pay-per-view!!!), the UFC hopes the latest strategy will return more wandering eyes to The Ultimate Fighter and restore the relative prominence it once held.

The other change the UFC and FX have announced in an effort to boost TUF ratings is that the show will no longer be relegated to the television graveyard that is Friday night. Realizing that much of the show’s core demographic spends that night away from the TV, a shift to a weeknight—when fewer males ages 18-35 are out at the bar—would likely rope in more viewers just because of the convenience factor alone.

But aren’t these moves merely a return to the status quo? Prior to the show’s move to FX, The Ultimate Fighter had never been aired on a Friday night specifically because of the reasons I just mentioned. Remember, too, that the first several seasons of TUF featured A-list coaches (Couture, Liddell, Ortiz, Hughes), and it was only after the UFC more or less ran out of other viable options did it resort to recent match-ups like Bisping vs. Mayhem or Carwin vs. Nelson. The ratings dip seen throughout the latest seasons is really a consequence of a weakened product, so it only makes sense that fewer people would be tuning in.

So how else could the UFC make The Ultimate Fighter destination TV once more? Aside from returning to the proven methods of weeknight scheduling and top-flight fighters as coaches, there are a few other ideas that could potentially stir the pot.

When the UFC first sought out ways to spice up TUF after three seasons, it eschewed the fighters-as-coaches format for one that featured existing UFC fighters competing for a title shot. Simply rebooting this format would, at the very least, provide a little variety that has been sorely lacking from the show.

A possible twist on this idea would be to invite popular fighters from previous TUF seasons who never quite made a dent in the UFC for one more shot at a contract. The UFC could also combine these fighters with other former UFC talent who were released from their contracts after losses and are looking to fight their way back. We all know that fighters like Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, Gerald Harris and Roger Huerta could easily make for some entertaining fights on The Ultimate Fighter, and you have to admit that you’re sort of curious what Junie Browning is up to these days.

Sure, this would probably mean inviting fighters with a wide range of qualifications to potentially rejoin the UFC’s roster, but the name recognition among MMA fans might pique enough interest to make it worthwhile. Besides, the stronger fighters would weed out the weaker and, as in all TUF seasons, the best of the bunch would emerge victorious.

Another way to potentially renew interest in The Ultimate Fighter would be for the UFC to showcase fighters from new and emerging weight classes. In season five of TUF, B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver coached two teams of lightweights just a few months after the UFC re-instated that weight class. This season served to introduce viewers to a brand new division of fighters as well as filling out a more meager part of the UFC’s roster. Just a few years later, the lightweight division has become one of the most competitive and exciting weight classes in the UFC.

Earlier this year, the UFC instituted a flyweight division. While the 125-pound fights have certainly been exciting thus far, the division remains one of the more thinly populated in the promotion. Bringing in a new crop of flyweight fighters would serve to bolster the division’s ranks in the UFC, and the hypothetical TUF flyweight season could feature a title fight between champion Demetrious Johnson and whoever is the top contender at the time for added excitement.

Perhaps more significant, and potentially more attention-grabbing, would be for the UFC to debut a women’s division with a female-only season of TUF. The winner could fight Ronda Rousey for the inaugural UFC women’s bantamweight title, or Rousey could coach a team against a fellow 135er. This would shine more of a spotlight on women’s MMA than ever before and could serve as a perfect segue to introducing women’s divisions to the UFC.

There are a few other harebrained ideas the UFC could try in order to make The Ultimate Fighter destination television once more (each team has a “regular guy” who is not a professional or even amateur MMA fighter, and at the end of the season they fight each other; making each episode 90 minutes and featuring a fight between signed UFC fighters in addition to each week’s TUF contestant fight; replacing “regular guy” with “MMA-trained celebrity” in that earlier idea), but their overall effect would probably be minimal, if initially intriguing. Truth be told, the professionals at FX and the UFC are probably all over trying to revive the ratings for one of the UFC’s key properties, and their ideas are almost certainly better than mine.

Nevertheless, if those two groups hope to salvage the viewership for this struggling program, they’re going to need to act soon or just get rid of the show altogether.

Photo: The Ultimate Fighter 16 Cast (Zuffa, LLC)

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.