Put ’Em Up! Combat Sports Get TV Traction

Boxing, MMA Connecting With Multiple Networks

National cable sports networks are increasingly turning to the combat sports arena to punch up their young male viewership numbers.

Boxing and mixed martial arts programming, once relegated mostly to pay-per-view and premium TV services, are now finding a home on relatively new sports networks like NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and CBS Sports Network, as well as on veteran services like ESPN2, looking for quality, live programming that will attract loyal, male viewers.

“It’s very compelling programming that attracts a strong male demographic and it’s good to program on off nights like Fridays and Saturdays, so it works well for us,” said NBCSN and NBC Sports programming president Jon Miller. “Clearly there’s an appetite for combat sports.”

Indeed, NBCSN has made boxing and MMA programming a major part of its live sports offering. It aired five live boxing cards in 2013 and also aired four events from the upstart MMA-based World Series of Fighting outfit. Its Aug. 10 MMA telecast drew more than 260,000 viewers, up more than 30% over the previous three outings.

Miller said a large segment of combat sports fans is looking for boxing and MMA-based programming on television. Over the past few years, the biggest events have only been available via PPV or, in boxing’s case, on pay TV outlets like HBO and Showtime. While both sports benefited financially on those platforms, Miller said a lot of combat sports fans weren’t able to watch live events on non-pay television.

ESPN has been one of the few sports networks airing combat sports events with its 15-year-old Friday Night Fights series, now on ESPN2. The series, which averaged 359,000 viewers over 27 telecasts through Aug. 9, has featured several world boxing champions over the years, including Arturo Gatti, Hasim Rahman and Zab Judah, according to network officials.

Upstart network Fox Sports 1 is betting on a pent-up demand for combat sports on basic cable. The network, which launched Saturday (Aug. 17), will devote its Monday- and Wednesday-night lineups to boxing and Ultimate Fighting Championship-based MMA programming, respectively, according to Patrick Crakes, senior vice president of programming and research for Fox Sports.

The network tonight (Aug. 19) will launch the first of 24 live boxing matches on Monday nights featuring up and coming contenders as part of a deal with Golden Boy Productions. On Wednesdays, it will feature live UFC events and library content, including reality series The Ultimate Fighter, which formerly aired on FX.

With the UFC’s ability to draw young viewers — the median age for MMA content is in the mid-30’s, according to Crakes — along with boxing’s strong appeal to men 18 to 49, Crakes said he believes that the network will be able to establish a weekly destination for all male viewers.

Despite the growing number of sports networks moving into the combat sports space, executives say good, quality boxing and MMA content will always draw viewers.

“I think it’s a very underserved market, I think our boxing and UFC franchise nights are places where fans can show up consistently and see high quality, athletic events in the combat genre that haven’t been offered to them before,” Crakes said.