The UFC and Spike TV have had a great relationship for a number of years, one where both parties have benefited tremendously from the other’s involvement. Spike was still struggling to establish it’s identity and it’s place in the cable landscape when they took a chance on a reality show featuring the UFC. At the same time the UFC was putting on great fights, but they needed help expanding their audience.
There have already been plenty of words written about how much of a game-changer The Ultimate Fighter was when it premiered. It allowed Spike to fully establish it’s own identity, as here was something unlike all of their other original programming. Of course the UFC found plenty of new fans thanks to the fighting styles of Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. I can’t even really fully imagine where this sport would be had it not been for “TUF.” That’s how much of an impact it had.
Now this relationship that worked out so well in the past is coming to a close. The UFC is taking their fights, their fighters, and their “Ultimate Fighter” and getting in bed with FOX. There’s no time for foreplay either, as the company has chosen to put a heavyweight title fight live on broadcast television on November 12th when Cain Velasquez defends his belt for the first time against Junior Dos Santos.
That very same night Spike will run a marathon of UFC Unleashed featuring the two men fighting for the belt that same night. They can do that because Spike retains control of the UFC’s broadcast library throughout 2012. They are even going so far as to name this marathon “Velasquez vs. Dos Santos: Unleashed for the Heavyweight Title,” a name that was expertly crafted by the think-tank at Spike to be as confusing as possible for the casual fan.
I know it seems kind of silly to think that anyone would confuse a marathon of old fights with an actual live title fight, much less a title fight that’s taking place on a broadcast television. Yet the fact is that not everybody is as smart and handsome as you, dear reader. There are plenty of casual UFC fans who have no idea that the company is parting ways with Spike next year. If these same people aren’t big fans of football or Glee then they might not know about the big title fight in November.
Regardless of the counter-programming efforts of Spike executives, I think it’s safe to say that the UFC’s premiere event on Fox will do pretty well for itself. Let’s not forget though that Spike still has old UFC fights for an entire year. Once their current deal expires I expect Spike will take the gloves off completely, and begin airing more UFC marathons at the same time as PPV events. That’s when the UFC starts to run into some danger.
Consider this – A UFC PPV event is this Saturday (it’s not, but play along here) and the main event is a somewhat mediocre non-title fight. That same evening Spike airs a marathon of old Fight Nights or Unleashed episodes. Given the choice between new fights that may or may not be good and classic fights you know are good, is your wallet going to let you pick the new fights every time? If Spike decides to show a few older Fight Nights or TUF Finales that you haven’t seen in a while, would that entice you to tune in?
Time can only tell how the bitter battle between the UFC and Spike will play out over the next year. Of course, there is a way for the UFC to get out of this situation: they would simply need to buy back the rights to their own library from Spike. The only reason they aren’t doing it is because that then opens up Spike to start airing events from Bellator, who have become the nations de facto #2 MMA promotion since Zuffa purchased Strikeforce. Spike clearly wants Bellator on their network, as otherwise the fact that they’re streaming Bellator pre-lims on their website makes no sense at all. Spike and MTV2 are owned by Viacom so it would be an easy move to slide those events from one channel to the next.
The question then becomes this: does the UFC stand to lose more viewers from showings of their old fights, or are they in greater danger from Bellator coming to Spike? Considering the fact that everything Dana White has done for the past ten years has been in service of growing the UFC brand, I’d say it’s the former.
Bellator probably won’t see that big of a Spike for their ratings if they shift from one network to the next (save for the fact that Spike is available in more homes than MTV2). At the same time the fact that Spike has free reign to counter-program whatever the UFC does for a whole year has to be considered a problem heading into what could potentially be the biggest year in history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
If I was one of the owners of the UFC, I’d be living a wildly different lifestyle. But also I would be telling anyone who would listen that we need to buy back those rights from Spike. It doesn’t matter if they’re not ‘honoring the spirit of the deal;’ cut them a check and cut those ties for good. We need to move forward, and we can’t do that if some cable station is running old Brock Lesnar fights in between episodes of Manswers and reruns of CSI.