Dana White sounded just like a kid on Christmas morning as he announced the UFC’s debut fight on the Fox network. The one hour prime time special will feature just one fight, a heavyweight title match-up between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos. The fight itself is almost certain to be a barn-burner; and while that will certainly add to White’s happiness it’s clear the UFC President has his eyes on something bigger than just a heavyweight title fight: mainstream acceptance.
The main reason the Fox special will contain just one potentially twenty-five minute fight is that both White and the network are banking on playing host to many eyeballs who will be watching the sport for the first time. Fox has committed to promoting the fight heavily on it’s football and baseball telecasts, as well as promotion through ads on the Fox family of networks. If any Fox viewer misses the UFC’s debut on the network, it won’t be because they were not aware of it.
Among the plans for the debut are a “Super Bowl tailgate” event that is slated to feature celebrities and an introductory tutorial of sorts from the announce crew designed to familiarize new viewers with the sport, similar to how the promotion approached their first telecasts on the Spike network. White is even doing something he previously said he would never do, he will back away from his long-held point of view that Zuffa must control all aspects of the production of the event and will be taking production input from Fox.
Some nay-sayers are already questioning both the decision to put a heavyweight title fight on free TV and the lack of any other fights planned for the one hour showcase. But both are necessary to attract the amount of new viewers both the promotion and the network are banking on. Going to the “next level” are White likes to put it is not going to happen if all they’re enticing viewers with is a fight between Tito Ortiz and Rich Franklin, one fight that was rumoured for the slot. Keeping the focus on just one fight, and having that fight being a heavyweight title fight also allows Fox to have it’s extra-curricular introductory activities they’re planning and also focus exclusively on the heavyweight title fight as destination programming. Fox’s David Hill was practically giddy at the thought, comparing the event to Ali-Foreman.
There is a legitimate concern that they are sacrificing pay-per-view revenue by allowing Cain-JDS to happen on free TV. But in the long run, it is a worthwhile investment. Much like casual boxing fans, nothing will lure the casual MMA fan like a heavyweight title fight. If White feels this is as crucial to UFC’s continued expansion as the original Ultimate Fighter was, there’s no reason not to “put your best foot forward” as the UFC boss said. The glass is half-empty view will maintain that it will knee-cap UFC 139, the pay-per-view which takes place the weekend after UFC’s Fox debut. But that ignores that a) the UFC will be able to shill the pay-per-view event relentlessly in front of a record number of viewers; and b) the fight rumoured to take the main event slot of UFC 139 is Anderson Silva vs. Dan Henderson 2, a fight that would make any revenue loss from having Cain-JDS on free TV negligible. One can also argue that if having Cain-JDS on Fox turns either one of them into a legitimate pay-per-view draw, future revenue will make giving this fight away now well worth it.
While White hasn’t mentioned a goal for the number of viewers he’s aiming for on the Fox debut, but he has specified one event he wants to “blow out of the water”, the current holder for the most watched MMA fight in North America, CBS’ showing of the Elite XC event that brought us Kimbo Slice vs. James Thompson. With heavy support from Fox and a heavyweight title fight to promote, the question will not be “will it break the record?”, but how far in the dust it will leave Kimbo behind.
If this launches UFC as a bona fide mainstream sport, the only thing left for Dana White and Zuffa to accomplish will be total global domination. By the time the initial Fox deal ends, UFC could be talked about in the same breath as the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.