LOS ANGELES — The UFC has made it to network prime-time.
Mixed martial arts’ dominant promotional company announced a landmark seven-year deal with Fox on Thursday, putting four UFC shows on the main network each year and an extensive array of programming on its cable networks. The UFC will become a prominent feature on FX, with live fights on most Friday nights and a revamped version of “The Ultimate Fighter,” the UFC’s popular reality show .
UFC President Dana White said the deal is the biggest step yet in MMA’s transformation from a banned fringe sport into a mainstream entertainment property. The UFC already is wildly popular among young men, but Fox will put the sport in front of an enormous new audience with its first regular slot on a broadcast network.
“This is what I always wanted, what I always thought was the pinnacle for us,” White said. “This partnership is going to take this sport to the next level. Those people that thought I was a lunatic, saying this was going to be the biggest sport in the world, this is the next step.”
Fox will allow the UFC to control its own production, a longtime stumbling block in White’s negotiations with network TV over the past several years. Although the UFC is still in charge of the product, White said he wants “to make a fresh start” in every aspect of UFC’s programming, working with Fox to improve even its pay-per-view broadcasts.
Fox Sports Chairman David Hill said the network won’t have trouble selling network advertising for a violent, high-testosterone sport that’s still viewed with an arched eyebrow by much of the public and media.
“TV is all about the next big thing, and that’s what we’re here for,” Hill said. “We would not have gone into this deal if we had not canvassed a large pool of advertisers … and found they were behind it.”
Hill also had no problem leaving the UFC in charge of its own broadcasts.
“I think their production is first-class, and I doubt there’s anything we could bring,” he said.
The UFC’s first prime-time fights on Fox will air Nov. 12. White is still working out details of the show, which likely will be held at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
Networks have flirted with MMA for most of the past decade, and CBS has aired cards by the EliteXC and Strikeforce promotions in recent years to mixed success. Strikeforce fights still air on Showtime, CBS’ premium cable network, but the UFC bought the Strikeforce promotion earlier this year, absorbing its only significant competitor.
CBS never had access to the UFC’s peerless roster of fighters, instead building its prime-time shows around glorified bouncer Kimbo Slice and now-faded stars Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson. White wouldn’t say which UFC stars will appear on prime-time shows, but UFC champions Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre and Jon “Bones” Jones all could get the widest television audiences and biggest paychecks of their careers starting next year.
White declined to reveal the deal’s total value, saying, “nobody gets rich doing a TV deal except the NFL. But if we do things the right way, it should be huge for us, for the fighters, for Fox, for everybody.”
“The Ultimate Fighter” will move from Spike to FX next spring for its 15th edition, and the show will evolve from a taped reality show into a live sports program with reality-TV elements, according to FX Executive Vice President Chuck Saftler. The show’s competitive fights will air live on Friday nights, and its episodes will be filmed and released within a week — much faster than in i ts previous incarnation, which starts its 14th cycle on Spike this fall.
Most of the UFC programming currently airing on Versus also will move to FX, as will the behind-the-scenes reality shows leading up to major fights. Fuel, a lower-profile Fox cable channel, also will broadcast UFC programming.
Although the four Fox shows are the centerpiece of the deal, the bulk of the UFC’s programming will be on FX in its nearly 100 million homes. FX President John Landgraf and Saftler have built a powerful lineup of critically acclaimed and highly rated dramas and comedies over the past decade, but the network has spent years looking for sports programming to complement its scripted lineup, dabbling with NASCAR and college football in recent years.
“The UFC has a certain sensibility and tonality that falls right in line with that brand that we’ve built,” Saftler said. “ We’re also able to keep our programming message simple now: You can see UFC fighting live on a Friday night on FX.”
Saftler actually sees a natural fit for the UFC among viewers of FX’s cerebral dramas, like “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy,” and raucous comedies like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Archer.”
“There’s a great intelligence to the fighters, how they have to adapt and adjust and train,” Saftler said. “This isn’t just dumbed-down punching. This is really a sport with well-conditioned athletes who have to put great study into their opponents. This is both brain and brawn working in the octagon.”
And while weekend programming has long been a problem for FX and most major cable networks, Saftler said, “sports are the one thing that always seems to break through.”
Saftler believes recent flat ratings of UFC programming on Spike, a division of MTV Networks, reflect more on the UFC’s former network than its product.
“Spike has really let themselves become one-dimensional,” Saftler said. “The only thing they’ve had is UFC. They’ve in essence known they were letting UFC go for quite a while. I guess that becomes less of a priority as they try to figure out what their next priority will be. They’ll find a way to make that network relevant in a different way now, but we see this as just a great compl ement to an already robust lineup of programming.”