UFC is Back, on In Demand

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After a three-year hiatus, the controversial Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit will return to cable pay-per-view in September.

In Demand and new UFC owners Zuffa Sports Entertainment have reached a four-year, multievent agreement to distribute the mixed martial-arts show, which cable operators banned due to the sport's perceived violent nature.

Executives from Zuffa, which purchased UFC from Semaphore Entertainment Group last January, said they also hope to secure distribution for a weekly basic-cable show in the near future.

In Demand will distribute approximately six UFC events a year, beginning Sept. 28. The suggested retail price of the first event is $24.95.

In Demand senior vice president of programming and development Dan York said Zuffa has adopted a number of rule changes that have allowed UFC to regain the good graces of state athletic commissioners and, ultimately, the PPV network. Zuffa will also embark on an aggressive marketing push to reintroduce the sport that will showcase actress Carmen Electra as its spokeswoman.

"Zuffa has upgraded the rules and regulations of the sport and it has the sanctioning of some of the larger athletic commissions," York said. "The new management has demonstrated to us that it is ready to bring the UFC back to PPV."

The deal marks the return of what had been a lucrative sports franchise for the cable industry. The UFC, originally touted as a no-holds-barred, fight-to-the-death event, burst onto the PPV scene four years ago to strong buy-rate performances.

But the franchise quickly ran into political trouble in 1997, when the New York State Athletic Commission banned UFC due to excessive violence — even though SEG insisted that no one had been seriously hurt in an event.

As other major state sanctioning bodies repudiated UFC's legitimacy as a sport, operators one by one refused to carry the events. By 1998 In Demand, then Viewer's Choice, banned the sport altogether.

While UFC continued to average around 25,000 PPV buys via DirecTV Inc. and several stand-alone systems, it didn't have enough distribution to make the franchise financially viable for SEG, which eventually sold UFC to Zuffa. Interestingly, Zuffa owner Lorenzo Fertitta is a former vice chairman of the Nevada Athletic Commission.

The Nevada commission will vote on whether to sanction UFC during a meeting in July. York said In Demand will honor the contract, regardless of the commission's decision.

Fertitta said the In Demand deal will help boost awareness of the UFC and its stars. He added Zuffa hopes to secure a basic cable-deal for the UFC in the near future, although he has yet to initiate talks with any network.

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