As TV Deal Winds Down, UFC Will Choose Between Spike or New Home
Wednesday night marked the season finale of the UFC's major programming vehicle, The Ultimate Fighter. It also marked the unofficial beginning of a countdown to the zero hour when the promotion will be faced with a major decision about the fate of its key show. Its current deal with longtime home Spike expires at the end of 2011, following the 14th season of TUF.
According to most observers within the industry, selling the television rights package is the single most important priority for the UFC, and as of now, it remains open for negotiation, a showpiece with bidders circling but no deal yet reached.
While the UFC and Spike remain the main players and talks between the two remain ongoing, the two sides aren't the only ones involved. In a drama that has played out over recent months and is expected to drag on into the near future in executive boardrooms, other suitors will continue to try to convince the UFC to abandon its longtime home.
Chief among the possible new landing spots is Versus, which is soon to be re-branded as "NBC Sports Channel," or some similar variation, and with which the UFC already has a solid relationship. In 2007, UFC parent company Zuffa struck a deal to broadcast its WEC brand on Versus, and in Dec. 2009, the two sides increased their investment in each other, with Versus beginning to air UFC events as well. The UFC's current deal with Versus allows them to broadcast four live events in 2011.
While TV ratings on Spike have generally been higher than those on Versus, it's not so simple as ratings or money, according to those in the know. The UFC is also hopeful of a partner that will allow them to leverage other assets past the airtime of an event. That would seem to favor Comcast, which can boast the assets of NBC at its disposal, including the possibility of multiple cable channels, morning shows and late-night programming.
Yet within the UFC, there is still an appreciation for Spike's willingness to air its product when no one else would. There is also a certain ease to their relationship that only comes with time.
"Yeah, absolutely, our preference is to stay with them," UFC president Dana White said in a recent exclusive interview with MMA Fighting. "Obviously we've been with them forever. We have a great relationship. There's a little comfort being there."
Still, there have been at least some signs of tension over the last few months. For one, Spike changed TUF's start time from its customary 10 pm slot to 9 pm this season, a shift that White said was partially responsible for the lower-than-expected ratings. And while Spike declined to comment on ongoing negotiations, a company source questioned some of the booking choices the UFC has made for its Fight Night events.
As an example, he wondered how large an audience would have been drawn to Randy Couture's last fight had it been the main event of a Spike show rather than airing on pay-per-view.
"I'm not saying they're not giving us good fights, but there's a difference between good fights and marquee names," the source said. "The good fights pull in UFC fans, but the marquee names are the ones that pull in sports fans. That's how you get those monster ratings."
Privately, Spike executives are hopeful of retaining a sports property that helped their cable network build an identity, but it's clear it's no sure thing. A source with knowledge of the situation told MMA Fighting that Spike has had production executives in attendance at some Bellator events, perhaps keeping an eye on a potential replacement should UFC bolt.
Still, Spike believes its history of working closely with the UFC will win out, noting how many hours the channel devotes to the UFC, and wondering if anyone else could offer the same. While the UFC is a major property for Spike, that might not necessarily be the case at another cabler. It's also worth noting that Spike is available in 99.4 million homes, about 20 million more than Versus, its most likely rival.
White bluntly says that the promotion is talking to "everybody," weighing their options as they take their prime platform into free agency. It's a deal that may not have long to finalize. While White gave a six-month timeframe for completion, it's likely that both the UFC and Spike will know the fate of a new deal much earlier than that. If the UFC leaves, it will need at least a few months to get the news out and promote its new TV home. Likewise, Spike would require some time to adjust its schedule and advertise a new Wednesday night lineup.
One source said it is likely we will know the answer to TUF's 2012 home before TUF 14 starts broadcasting in September. That leaves just about three months in which to strike a deal.
"We're talking to everybody, and when I say we're talking to everybody, we're talking to everybody," White said. "That's what you do when your deal is up. With Spike, it's normal s---. What's going on right now is normal. There is nothing abnormal about what's going on."
Where the UFC ends up is anyone's guess. UFC and Spike officials talk regularly, according to White, and both sides say the relationship is hardly strained despite the uncertainty of the future.
If you want to read into the tea leaves, recent signs have been more positive. Just days ago, the UFC and Spike announced that Jason "Mayhem" Miller would be one of the coaches on TUF, lending his "Bully Beatdown" reality show fame to the franchise. In addition, both White and a Spike source said it's quite likely that TUF will be back on at 10 pm next season, putting the show back into its historic slot.
Spike and the UFC helped make each other, and the relationship remains in good working order, even with a looming deadline. That, of course, will change if another cable channel wedges their way in between them. Time for negotiations is running short, and very soon, a decision will have to be made about the UFC's future home. It may not be the revenue driver that pay-per-view is, but the TV rights deal is a potentially huge step forward as the UFC continues its plan to expand its reach worldwide. Six years into its run on Spike, the UFC's television future is alternatively full of uncertainty and full of promise.
"Where could we end up? Anything is possible," White said. "Nothing is impossible."