To read the headlines, operators and cable networks are on the ropes these days, given recent trends toward time-shifted viewing and its negative effect on ratings.
Still, several networks are fighting back with the power ratings punch of live ring sports.
Live boxing, pro wrestling and mixed-martial arts (MMA) programming continues to deliver healthy ratings numbers for networks like FS1, Spike TV, USA Network, Showtime and HBO as sports fans gather in front of large screen TVs to watch action-packed — and unpredictable — DVR-proof live events that help drivesocial media discussion before, during and after the fisticuffs.
Moreover, distributors are experimenting with new technologies like 4K and virtual reality for live ring sports events, while others are exploring OTT options to allow fans to watch all the action on multiple screens.
“It’s unscripted, it’s live and it’s real,” FS1 senior vice president of programming, research and content strategy Patrick Crakes said. “Two people in the ring together trying to test each other — anything can happen at any second.”
SPOILING FOR FIGHTS
Viewers, it turns out, like a good fight, and lots of them are tuning in to see the action. Spike TV’s Feb. 19 Kimbo Slice-Dada Bellator 149 MMA telecast drew a record 2 million viewers — the biggest audience for the general-entertainment channel this year outside of its hit series Lip Sync Battle. The event was part of the network’s Friday-night lineup of live MMA and pro boxing events.
FS1’s live Ultimate Fighting Championship telecasts in 2015 generated 15% of the network’s viewing audience, while comprising just 12% of its programming schedule, according to Crakes. In 2015, FS1’s 26 live UFC events in primetime averaged 1 million total viewers.
So far this year, four live UFC events on FS1 have averaged nearly 1 million viewers. The network is set to air live coverage of the preliminary bouts for UFC’s 12 pay-per-view events, as well as 15 additional live UFC fight cards.
“All of the network’s UFC programming is trending up year to year,” Crakes said. “It really became a phenomenon — it provides a lot of high-quality content.”
Ring sports — especially pro wrestling and MMA — draw the younger viewers who are tuning out of traditional TV programming more often than not, UFC executive vice president and chief content officer Marshall Zelaznik added.
The median age of UFC’s viewer audience is 37.8 years, which skews younger than that of the major U.S. professional sports leagues by 4.8 to 12.1 years, according to the company.
Meanwhile, boxing is gearing up to build on arguably its most successful year ever, from a pay-per-view revenue and ratings standpoint. HBO has already slated two PPV fights in 2016, the April 9 Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley Jr. fight and the May 7 Canelo Alvarez-Amir Kahn bout. It hopes to ride the coattails of last May’s record-setting Floyd Mayweather- Manny Pacquiao event — which generated more than $400 million in PPV revenues — as well as last November’s Miguel Cotto-Canelo Alvarez bout, which drew nearly 1 million PPV buys.
A WINNING SEASON
The mixed martial arts and pro wrestling categories are also coming off strong 2015 PPV campaigns, and are looking ahead to big revenue and buy returns this year, Mark Boccardi, In Demand senior vice president of programming and business development, said.
“Ring sports are by nature cyclical, but we’re at a point now where everything has been clicking for these distributors on PPV,” Boccardi said. “UFC had an incredible bounceback year; boxing had its best year ever, due mostly to Mayweather-Pacquiao; and with WWE we still do significant buys for those customers that aren’t subscribing to [the WWE Network over-the-top service, which carries that company’s PPV events].”
As the TV marketplace continues to evolve, network executives said, live ring sports will remain a valuable programming asset for networks looking for a relatively low-cost sports offering — compared with the billion-dollar rights fees commanded by pro sports leagues — that will deliver a unique and loyal audience.
“The value of having a cost-effective sport in today’s sports marketplace can’t be overstated,” said Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president of Showtime Sports, which will mark its 30th year of championship boxing coverage in 2016. “We all know where the industry trend is going in terms of rights fees, so it seems like many programmers have discovered a relatively low-cost barrier to entrytype of sports programming.”
Indeed, networks like AXS TV have relied on live ring sports programming to help build their brand with would-be affilliates and viewers. The Mark Cuban-owned entertainment service has been offering live MMA, boxing and wrestling events on Friday nights for more than a decade.
This year, the network will air 42 live ring sports events, AXS TV Fights CEO Andrew Simon said. The immediacy of the events, and the need to watch them as they’re happening, have helped put the network on the map.
“In today’s television world, we don’t know many people who are watching TV in real time outside of sports,” Simon said. “It’s sports that you have to watch live. You do not want to hear that Holly Holm beat Ronda Rousey and then watch a replay of the fight — you want to watch that live and then be able to join in the social engagement afterwards.”
Even pro wrestling, a heavily scripted but still action-infused genre, has benefited from providing live content to its legion of fans. USA Network continues to draw more than 4 million viewers a week for its weekly, live WWE Monday Night Raw series, which is now in its 23rd year.
The live Raw telecasts allow WWE fans to engage with must-see television every week, while affording USA Network an opportunity to showcase its other programming to pro wrestling’s loyal and committed viewer base, NBCUniversal Entertainment Networks president Chris McCumber said.
“As the most-watched regularly scheduled year-round program on cable, Monday Night Raw is an extremely valuable franchise, with three hours of live, high-octane entertainment airing on USA every Monday night, 52 weeks a year to a massive, passionate, loyal and engaged fanbase,” McCumber said in a statement.
Added WWE chief revenue and marketing officer Michelle Wilson: “While the TV landscape continues to evolve, live, DVR-proof programming remains extremely valuable to both our partners and fans. Live programming also serves as the core of engagement across digital and social platforms and drives the conversation all week long, 24/7.”
Live content is also a major driver of socialmedia action. Of the 10 most-discussed TV shows on Twitter in 2015, six were live sports telecasts, according to Nielsen.
“It boosts social traffic because people are talking to each other about what they’ve seen on the live telecast,” Spike president Kevin Kay said. “If you have a great knockout or great submission, the first thing that happens is somebody says, ‘Did you see that?’ and that drives viewership and conversation on social and drives up traffic during the fight and after the fight.”
Several networks are working toward making sure viewers can see those big knockouts through technological enhancements like 4K and virtual reality.
UFC will look in the near future to implement virtual reality and 4K-enhanced video for live events offered on its Fight Pass OTT service, UFC’s Zelaznik said.
The subscription-based Fight Pass will offer live coverage of the undercard fights for UFC’s more than 41 live events, as well as more than 110 shows for non-UFC MMA events.
“We think we can provide more value to Fight Pass subscribers and continue to experiment with the new technologies,” he said. “What we can deliver digitally is really high-quality clarity.”
Executives from FS1, AXS TV and Showtime also confirmed experimentation with either or both 4K and virtual reality for their live ring-sports events.
“Virtual reality provides some real opportunities because of its ability to immerse people at home to the experience,” FS1’s Crakes said. “We always hear from our fans that they want the telecast to bring them closer to the event, and virtual reality — if we can make it work inside the home — has that potential. To be able to give everybody a ringside seat is pretty appealing.”
Even more distributors are getting into the live sports ring. Pop will offer its first live TNA Impact Wrestling telecast on March 15. It launched the pro-wrestling series, which had previously aired on Spike TV and later Destination America, in January.
“Impact Wrestling on Pop is must-watch appointment television that delivers a consistent, loyal audience every Tuesday night,” Pop president Brad Schwartz said. “It is 52 weeks a year of original content, including many weeks that are live, like the upcoming live event on March 13.”
El Rey Network may also look to develop live pro wrestling shows based on of its original wrestling series Lucha Underground, according Eric Van Wagenen, showrunner and executive producer for the Mark Burnett-produced reality series.
The sophomore series, which features Mexican pro wrestling content, deliberately does not market or promote episode highlights in advance of its premiere in an effort to replicate the excitement and must-see appeal of a live wrestling telecast.
“It’s absolutely conceivable that we would get to a point of offering a live event,” Wagenen said. “We’re taking a measured approach. The advantage of shooting a season is that it gives us an off-season — we could conceivably supplement the series with live events during that time.”
Also lacing up its live-event gloves is digital company Flipps Media, which earlier this month launched the FITE TV app offering select PPV ring sports events via mobile devices.
Just this past weekend, the service offered six live PPV combat sports events, including Ring of Honor professional wrestling and World Armwrestling Championship events that were also distributed by In Demand, DirecTV and Dish Network.
The FITE TV app can be downloaded from iTunes or Google Play, and provides users the option of streaming a live show on a phone or connecting directly to a Smart TV, FITE senior vice president of marketing Michael Weber said.
Along with live PPV programming, the service has deals to distribute free, ad-supported VOD combat sports content.
OTT IN THE RING
“You can’t be in this business doing live event PPV programming and not look for alternatives to cable and satellite,” Weber said, adding that the company is hoping to secure rights deal with other PPV event distributors.
“We all know cable subscriber numbers are shrinking every year, so this makes sense for all the programmers to be looking at new ways to deliver programming,” Weber added. “We’re not trying to replace cable, we want to supplement it.”
With networks and distributors offering content on multiple platforms, it looks like live sports programming will continue to pack a major punch in the television marketplace for several more rounds.
“There’s more content on cable and over-the-air broadcast networks than ever before,” FS1’s Crakes said. “I’m bullish on ring sports because I believe they are the cornerstone of live sports programming.”