It goes without saying that the first year of the UFC on Fox has been a disappointment for the world's preeminent MMA organization. Ratings for the UFC's Fox specials started strong last November, dipped in January remaining strong, but tanked in May, and stayed relatively unimpressive two weeks ago. You can spin the slipping ratings all you want (and UFC president Dana White did in May), but it goes without saying that the ratings so far have ultimately been disappointing.
The next Fox fight card is scheduled for December 8th, and the card for the event is completely loaded. The lightweight title will be defended by champion Ben Henderson, who always puts on extremely exciting fights, against Nate Diaz, one of the most outspoken fighters in MMA (and a pretty talented, exciting guy in his own right who was on the Fox show in May). Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, a former UFC and PRIDE champion who put on a hell of a fight on the last Fox event against Brandon Vera, will take on one of the organization's top young prospects in Alexander Gustafsson. The third announced fight puts MMA legend BJ Penn, a former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion, against Rory McDonald, a young Canadian who's gotten into a war of words with Penn and has been deemed the future of the UFC's welterweight division.
If these three fights, along with another one yet to be announced, can't draw huge ratings for the organization... well, it's rare that anything ever will on Fox after that strong debut they had with the Junior Dos Santos-Cain Velasquez heavyweight title fight last November. But why?
When I mentioned White's rationalization of the poor ratings for the May Fox card... well, he had a point. The show was going up against a Manny Pacquiao fight on Cinco de Mayo. It's a valid concern. The show two weeks ago was doomed by similar, but completely different, circumstances. The UFC on Fox show this month drew a 1.1 rating among adults 18-49 and 2.1 million viewers. The rating and viewership is flat compared to May (which drew a 1.0 rating and 2.25 million viewers), but the total viewer pool is much, much different due to this thing you may have heard of called "the Summer Olympics." The Olympics destroyed all comers in head to head ratings on August 4th, drawing a 7.8 rating in adults 18-49 and 26.08 million viewers. That is one hell of a mountain for any network to climb, and the fact that the UFC's numbers were steady while CBS and ABC both took huge hits (with CBS going from a 0.9 and 5.57 million viewers to a 0.5 and 2.89 million viewers, and ABC going from a 0.8 and 2.94 million to a 0.5 and 2.06 million) is definitely a good sign for the organization.
Here's where the main issue with the UFC on Fox lies. You know what kind of numbers Fox did the week before this month's UFC show, with the Olympics as a competitor? An hour of Cops and an hour of Mobbed drew a 0.6 rating among adults 18-49, and 2.23 million viewers. A week later, with the same competition, the UFC's rating in the key demo was up nearly double, but the total viewers were actually down. Even when Fox was airing baseball in primetime for eight straight weeks, their ratings and total viewership numbers were up compared to the UFC. Demographically, baseball was largely consistent with the UFC, but looking at overall numbers, the fights got creamed.
Is the December show a Hail Mary for the UFC? Perhaps. Looking at the broad scope of the UFC/Fox deal though, the placement of fights on Fuel has been a rousing success for the network, with ratings doubling in comparison to last year. FX on the other hand, has seen increases in comparison to other programming on the network, but comparing the events to similar content on Spike, the fight cards have seen decreased ratings.
I don't think neither the UFC nor Fox is going to punt on the deal. They're less than a year in, and it hasn't been a complete disaster for either party yet. But if this December card doesn't deliver, and I highly doubt that it will be a stinker, there could be some heavy discussions on just what exactly to do with the next step.