Strong ratings have vindicated the hype over the return of boxing to TV through partnerships between networks like ABC, NBC, Spike, and ESPN and boxing promoter Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions franchise. Yet the Ultimate Fighting Championship also pinned down big audience numbers for content on Fox Sports during the first quarter of 2015. Fox Sports 1’s eight live UFC fight telecasts from January to March rose 30% in total viewers and 34% among adults 18-49 over the network’s UFC telecasts in 2014. Spearheading UFC’s ratings punch is company president Dana White, who spoke with Multichannel News programming editor R. Thomas Umstead about the mixed martial arts outfit’s own ratings renaissance. White also offers thoughts on the sweet science’s television aspirations.
MCN: Let’s start with some items in the news. What is your reaction to Dish Network’s decision not to renew its pay-per-view agreement with the UFC and to pull carriage of the April 25 UFC 186 PPV event?
Dana White: We’ve been in business with [Dish] for a long time. At this point, we’ve negotiated deals with every other distributor and we’re hopeful that we can get this resolved for our fans.
MCN: What impact, if any, does the suspension of UFC champion Jon Jones [who was charged with a felony last week for leaving the scene of a car accident and stripped of his light heavyweight title] have on business in the short run and on the UFC brand in the long run?
DW: In the short-term, financially, there’s no denying it’s a negative. In the long run, we feel it strengthens our brand. We’ve made it clear that athletes need to abide by the Athlete Code of Conduct. We’ve had an overwhelming response from our fans and our consumers who have supported us in this decision.
MCN: The UFC has jumped out to a fast start from a ratings perspective on Fox Sports thus far in 2015. What’s driving the sport’s recent ratings success on television?
DW: I think it’s increased awareness of the UFC on Fox and Fox Sports 1. What most people don’t realize is how hard it is to build a network; we were helping Fox build Fox Sports 1 last year. Then we had a lot of injuries to key fighters. This year for the most part the fights have stayed intact, and a lot more people are aware of Fox Sports 1 now, which has helped ratings. In fact, of all of Fox Sports content this year we have 16 of the top 25 [most watched] shows and 29 of the top 50 most-watched shows with men 18 to 49.
MCN: Observers often say that while the UFC is an exciting sport, it doesn’t have the star power like other sports. Does the ratings performance in 2015 help rebut that theory and prove that the UFC is building recognizable stars within the ranks of their athletes?
DW: Tell me this: When didn’t we have stars? Back in the day, from Chuck Lidell to Tito Ortiz to [Randy] Couture, Matt Hughes and Rich Franklin, we had stars. When all those guys started to retire, we had George St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Brock Lesnar come in and had some fun here, and now we have Conor McGregor, Jose Aldo, Rhonda Rousey, Cain Velazquez and basically every guy who is a champion. Those people who say we don’t have stars are crazy — we are loaded with stars.
MCN: Has the UFC’s success on Fox Sports translated into success in the PPV arena?
DW: Yes. When you talk about stars, you’re going to have guys who fight on television and guys who fight on PPV. You have two different levels of stars. Not every PPV fight is going to do 1 million buys, but if you look at where we are, by May we’ll beat last year’s total number.
MCN: Is it a coincidence that the UFC is performing well on television at the same time that boxing is experiencing its own renaissance on basic-cable and broadcast TV?
DW: I think the stuff that Al Haymon is doing is definitely creating interest in boxing, and people are tuning in and watching it. I’ve said this for years: What boxing needs is a guy who will put his hands in his pocket and spend money on the future of the sport. That’s what Al Haymon is doing, and he’s already pulling good numbers.
MCN: Does boxing’s success hurt or help the UFC?
DW: I’ve always said we’re not competitors — we only compete for dates and days. But people love fighting, so as long as you put on a good fight, people are going to watch it.
MCN: What should we expect from the UFC for the rest of the year?
DW: We will continue to put our head down and keep running the ball. We just celebrated one year with Fight Pass, our digital service, which is way bigger than it used to be because we’ve expanded our library. We own the largest MMA library in the world, so we expanded the library with not only our stuff but with all kinds of other MMA programming. It’s now everything combat sports all for $9.99 a month. The service is offered through Xbox and Play- Station and we’re going after all.
We also just renewed our deal with In Demand, and signed a new [advertising] deal with Anheuser- Busch and Draft Kings. We just came off a world tour which was incredibly successful.
We also shook up our new season of Ultimate Fighter, which is actually team vs. team, which gives it a completely different format, which should be fun. So that’s what we’ve done so far.