Several media outlets report that UFC’s parent company, Zuffa LLC is in negotiations to buy into the G4 network. Zuffa would own a controlling 60% share in the struggling network and turn G4 into a UFC channel. Is this the UFC’s XFL moment or a game changer in the worlds of sports and entertainment?
[adinserter block=”1″]The news certainly came out of left field on Thursday as it was first reported by the Wall Street Journal and later confirmed by the New York Times. Contrary to most headlines, the UFC is not in talks to outright buy the network. The Times reports that the UFC is negotiating to buy 60% of the network from Comcast, thus giving them majority interest.
Two of the people with knowledge of the NBC Universal talks said that UFC, which is privately held, could take ownership of 60 percent or more of G4, which is one of the lowest-rated cable channels in Comcast’s portfolio. Its target audience of men ages 18 to 34 overlaps nicely with UFC’s audience on Spike, a unit of Viacom, which has carried a fighting reality show for the last six years.
This comes at a time where the UFC’s television deal with Spike TV is coming to an end. Dave Meltzer reports that Dana White denies this story is true, although you’d have to be an idiot to take anything Mr. White says at face value nowadays. Several MMA sources do report that Spike TV is preparing for life without the UFC, although technically they are still in the game.
There are certainly both pros and cons to the UFC buying its own network, but I think there are plenty of more negatives to this than positives. While I do think that a 24/7 UFC channel is viable, I don’t think now is the right time to make the move. The UFC is coming off of its worst rated The Ultimate Fighter in show history, a pay per view which reportedly did 300,000 buys, and dropping Fight Night ratings. Does this really scream of fan demand for more UFC?
The potential pitfalls of turning the G4 channel into the UFC channel are numerous. For one, G4 is not on Direct TV which eliminates a big piece of the marketplace. Two, G4 is only available in 59,000,000 homes as compared to Spike which is available in 95,000,000-100,000,000 homes depending upon estimates. Three, the UFC would need to devote a ton of resources into running a network, distracting away from its current operations. Four, the G4 channel is very hard to find and unlike Spike, a channel you aren’t going to find in many hotels and bars around the country. Four, the UFC will need to put star fights on the network, thus depleting from its core pay per view business.
Additionally, if you thought nobody watched The Ultimate Fighter this season, wait until you put it on G4. Brock Lesnar is one of the UFC’s biggest stars, and he couldn’t even draw casual fan interest. The UFC will have less eyes on the television show, which in turn will make it harder to create new stars. Even with lower ratings, over a million people a week were still watching The Ultimate Fighter and the live finale. The idea of using TUF to create new stars would virtually be over if the show moved to the UFC network on G4.
I still think there is enough word of mouth online and through social media to promote big pay per view fights. Nick Diaz vs. Georges St-Pierre is still going to draw big numbers whether it is promoted on G4 or Spike TV. However, putting name fighters in a Friday Night Fights or live Fight Night will greatly dilute the pay per views. The UFC has over 200 fighters under contract, but how many of them are what you would call big draws? Great, now how many times a year are they fighting?
Of course there are also plenty of pluses. One, the UFC will have another revenue outlet. Dana White complained about Spike TV cutting back on TUF episodes and moving the start time back. Fine, now Dana can air TUF whenever he wants, for however long he wants, and at whatever time he wants. Nobody can deny the freedoms that the UFC will with their own channel in regards to programming. That is just a given.
The UFC can also keep Strikeforce alive with or without a Showtime deal. Zuffa can use Strikeforce as a component to the UFC. The UFC could develop stars in Strikeforce and work towards eventual crossovers that would have fans going crazy as they are for Diaz vs. GSP. The UFC can also promote the personalities of the fighters with talk shows, fighter specials, special correspondents, etc. Those are opportunities they wouldn’t get on another network.
But again, what does it all matter if nobody is watching? Who cares if you have the freedom to program all of these great ideas if nobody is watching? Is there even a hunger for UFC programming 24 hours a day? Yes putting a Brock Lesnar hunting special on Spike TV Tuesday night at 8 may do okay, but will anyone find it at channel 164?
[adinserter block=”1″]Viacom is also making plans to bring Bellator off of MTV 2 to Spike if the UFC leaves. The exposure for Bellator would be huge. What happens if Bellator can draw comparable numbers to the UFC? Do advertisers jump on the Bellator bandwagon? Does Bellator jump into the pay per view ring? All of the sudden the UFC will be competing with another MMA company for eyes and pay per view buys. With or without its own network, if the UFC leaves they will face competition from Bellator. Competing with Bellator on Versus is fine, but they could struggle big time if their only outlet is their own struggling network.
It took years for the NFL, MLB, and the NBA to get their own networks. The UFC has only been hot for five years and some may argue that the company has peaked. There will always be fan interest in the major sports but without the right star power to sustain itself, the UFC can easily crap out. Again, Dana White likes to say he is in competition with the NFL. That is fine, but the NFL is drawing 15-20 million pairs of eyes to watch their games in prime time while the UFC drew 1.8 million for the TUF 13 finale.
Also, keep in mind that the NFL, MLB, and the NBA aren’t set up as a pay per view model. The NFL can give away the Packers-Bears game on television or even the Super Bowl for free while the UFC is a pay per view driven model. If the UFC keeps their current business model, how are they going to expect fans to pay for fights when they are getting dozens of them on television for free all week?
Now if the UFC was able to work out a deal with Comcast to get air time on one of the NBC channels, this could work. The NFL has their own network, but they don’t rely on it to air their games. If the UFC can work out a deal where they have first run programs like TUF and Fight Night specials on one of their channels like Versus in addition to their network, this could work. Yet at that point, why even have the network?
At the end of the day I do like the progressive mindset of the UFC. If you can’t get a network deal they like somewhere else, well then why not start your own? Unfortunately it isn’t that easy and the ramifications of failure here are huge and could devastate the progress that the UFC has made in the last five years.
As a fan of the UFC I hope this is all just one big negotiation ploy. Otherwise the UFC I know and love will be changing forever and I don’t believe it is for the better.
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