The UFC on FOX … grapple with that one

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(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
David Hill, chief executive of Fox Sports, left, is joined by Fox Sports Media Group president Eric Shanks, UFC president Dana White, UFC CEO and chairman Lorenzo Fertitta and FX network president John Landgraf during the announcement today about a seven-year deal between the UFC and Fox.


Ultimately, Fox had no choice but to get into the UFC.

If it put it off any longer, Jay Glazer, the network’s esteemed NFL reporter who is also one heck of a mixed-martial arts fan, trainer and competitor, might have had to put the entire upper management at Fox Sports into a lethal choke hold.

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“I’ve been hoping this day would come for a very long time,” Glazer said as the announcement became official this morning in Century City – a seven-year, mult-tiered deal with Dana White’s Ultimate Fighting Championship that gives the mixed-message sport of MMA its most legitimate media platform to date.

Starting Nov. 12 with a fight card in Anaheim, at least four UFC events will air on Fox’s network a year. Six more, starting next spring, will go on Fox’s cable partner, FX, now in 99 million homes. That channel will also take up a live version of the popular “Ultimate Fighter” reality show that has been one of the most-watched series during the last seven years on Spike TV, a way to give a more human dimension to the otherwise crazed-looking fighters.

Fox Sports ultimate chief David Hill admits that 10 years ago, when he was first approached by UFC officials about becoming a partner after it was purchased by Zuffa, he was put off by the sport.

He even admitted to USA Today as recent as three years ago that MMA was “totally abhorrent.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” said Hill, not waiting to make a mountain out of that molehill.

Why? Follow the grappling greenbacks.

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(AP Photo/The News-Journal, Suchat Pederson)
Yoshihiro Akiyama lies on the mat during a match during a bout against Vitor Belfort, right rear, during UFC 133 in Philadelphia on Aug. 6.

The UFC, primarily a company that makes it cash with pay-per-view events, has been one of the few sports franchises to indelibly lock in the coveted men in the 18-to-34 age demographic for its prime-time Octoganal mayhem. That translates to huge ad dollars for whatever network sells its soul to put it on.

That’s why Fox’s media relations department felt it was proper to entice reporters to its live, web-streamed announcement from its NFL set in Century City by calling it “one of the biggest announcements in its 17-year history.” Actor and MMA host Joe Rogan had no fear factor into calling this “an historic moment.”

“Since (the start of Fox Sports in) 1994, we’ve always been opportunistic, but sports is the ultimate supply and demand, and we do a fair amount of soul searching and calculations before we go into bidding on something,” said Hill, who declined to confirm reports that the deal was for a reported $90 million a year, and was also coy about Fox being one of several networks in on the rights bidding.

“This is something we firmly believe in,” he added.

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Hill also noted that some advertisers might have a “do not buy” on the UFC, but “a helluva lot more have a ‘do buy’ behind it.”

Fox had an MMA beta test in 2002 when a UFC 37.5 event was held in conjunction with Fox Sports Net’s “Best Damn Sports Show” franchise. CBS and cable partner Showtime have also dipped their toe into the bloody water with a joint effort for over-the-air coverage in recent years, to very mixed reviews.

“Different quality and different production,” said Glazer of the competition’s efforts, mostly calling then UFC rival StrikeForce for its lesser-known fighters, before the UFC ended up buying Strikeforce. “Fox is the perfect fit now for UFC. We’re younger and hipper network. And we let them do the production. Why mess with someone who does it right?”

UFC will produce the fights, and Fox will air them, while Fox’s FUEL channel will also be involved. The UFC, in fact, had proposed taking over FUEL and making it a complete UFC channel until talks with Fox Sports president Eric Shanks, a former DirecTV executive, led to this partnership model.

Expect to see former CBS MMA play-by-play man Gus Johnson, now in the Fox tent, to be involved in calling some events, as well as some ultra-dimension cross-promotion of the sport on Fox’s NFL, MLB and NASCAR coverage, as well as shows like “American Idol,” as events come near.

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Think Chuck Liddell on the “NFL on Fox” Sunday morning set someday sitting next to Howie Long, allowing Jimmy Johnson to rate their hair pieces.

“I remember one time bringing Chuck in here, and everyone was asking, ‘Who’s that guy with the weird haircut and all the tattoos,’” said Glazer. “Now, if we’re walking around in Vegas, he’s a huge celebrity.”

So much might need to be explained in the weeks ahead for Fox’s decision to jump into this legal form of “Fight Club,” but Shanks even had an answer for that.

He said he owns a Harley Davidson T-shirt that says, “If I have to explain it to you, you wouldn’t understand.”

“This sports has been legit for a decade,” said Shanks.

And Fox has been a legit sports network for even longer.

But some may legitimately question if that’s at risk now.

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