Every once and a while, a TV network’s sports division will make a deal with the devil.
The deliverance of over-the-top ratings are far too tempting to ignore when pitched by some snake-oil retailers.
Take NBC’s leap into bed with Vince McMahon and his grand scheme for the XFL a decade ago. Dick Ebersol, who pulled his network out of NFL negotiations because he thought it was overvalued, thought he had captured the anti-NFL sentiment in a rebellious move. With the talent sub-par, and everything else so over-the-top, no one bought in. It barely lasted a year.
The latest apple offered up for networks to bite into is mixed martial arts.
An activity that recently has been fostered through off-the-beaten-path cable channels, feeding into a pay-per-view audience, continues to surge among younger viewers who have no connection to boxing’s history and shorter attention spans.
CBS thought it had an in with a Triple-A MMA organization three years ago, bringing octagonal combat fighting to a Saturday night audience whose graying demographic was more inclined to having a slice of peach cobbler with their “48 Hours Mystery” than a heaping helping of Kimbo Slice trying to make others bleed.
A new tipping point in measuring the public’s appetite was reached recently by Fox with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a seven-year, $700 million deal that officially starts in January but will launch loudly with a welcome-mat card from Anaheim’s Honda Center on Saturday night.
With it comes some the typical warning signs of a decision that some on the over-the-air TV side may regret down the road. But that’s to be ignored at this moment.
The legitimacy and track record of UFC appears to give Fox a fighting chance for a lucrative partnership. That matters most today to the same Fox execs who not so long ago displayed public disgust for the entire barbaric art form.
The fact Fox can promote the heck out of it during mainstream sporting events – there were promos all week during the Kings’ NHL telecasts on Fox Sports West, for example, and prior to that, saturating Fox’s World Series and NFL coverage – appears to give it more legitimacy. But it also exposes Fox, which plans to have four of these things a year (plus six more annually on FX), if all this breaks badly somewhere down the road.
UFC boss Dana White watched CBS’ first attempt at MMA coverage, a live event with shaky production values that went an hour over its allotted window and provided little action, and called it “a (bleeping) joke. . . . Did it set us back? I don’t know. (But) what happened last night should not be on (bleeping) television, especially network television.”
The inference was that the public should have demanded something more than an inferior product. Better punching. More arm-twisting. Stronger kicks to the groin.
White promises only top-notch action during Saturday’s first card, rigidly set to spotlight a heavyweight bout between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos from 6-to-7 p.m. (and a replay from 9-to-10 p.m.). Fox’s FuelTV and its Spanish-language channel with weight-ins and red-carpet specials leading up to and wrapping up the bout, and Fox Radio will also carry it live (on 570-AM).
Fox’s Curt Menefee and MMA enthusiast Jay Glazer will be part of the ancillary programming to help soften the blow. Mike Goldberg (of Lingerie Football League fame) and Joe Roggin (of “Fear Factor” fame) will call the UFC bout.
They say it’ll end well before a pay-per-view boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manual Marquez takes place in Las Vegas, for those crossover viewers.
“We are ready for prime time, and we’re going to show everybody on Saturday night,” White said earlier this week. “Either you like combat sports or you don’t. If you like it, watch. If you don’t, don’t.”
Fox Sports chairman David Hill, one of those who publically stated disdain for MMA not to long ago, doesn’t expect any chorus of discontent.
“I’m not expecting any backlash whatsoever,” he said. “If you look at the popularity of the sport, it’s moved from niche to mainstream, which is why we’re so pleased we could put this together.”
Will viewer discretion be advised?
“Definitely,” said Hill. “We’ll be advising America not to try this at home.”
That’s a very nice devil-may-care way of looking at it.