Opinion: UFC on FOX 5 and the Target Audience Shift
By Jesse Heitz
This Saturday, December 8th, UFC on FOX 5 is set to take place, and barring any last-minute catastrophic injuries the card should be significantly more than entertaining. The card, as many readers are already well-aware, features four main card bouts: Benson Henderson vs. Nate Diaz, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Alexander Gustafsson, B.J. Penn vs. Rory MacDonald, and Mike Swick vs. Matt Brown.
Anyone who has read my pieces can surely tell that I am above all else, a stickler for a deal. In terms of MMA, I absolutely relish the opportunity to watch a quality live MMA event on TV. There can be no doubt that UFC on FOX 5 is the sort of “deal” that I not only search for, but lobby for. There can be no doubt that this card, offered on network television, is sure to entertain, yet the event itself provides an opportunity to reflect upon the continual state of evolution within the sport that an event such as this signifies.
Once upon a time, the extent of free premier mixed martial arts events on television rested essentially with “The Ultimate Fighter” cards, composed largely of unknown fighters. This is certainly not to say that these cards were anything but entertaining. Now, every once in a while, a top-level MMA promotion offers a free card, loaded with internationally recognizable names, to the general public free of charge.
Over the course of the last decade, an easily discernible change has taken place before our very eyes. Early free and nationally televised UFC cards seemed almost entirely to cater to the readily identifiable MMA fan. The consumer already entrenched in the sport. The current crop of UFC events, which have shifted from being hosted on channels such as Spike TV and the former Versus Network, have cracked into FOX.
No longer are free cards exclusively hidden away from the casual sports fan, being broadcast on stations where only dedicated MMA fans would know to look for them. They are now heavily promoted and placed on one of the “big four” national networks, ostensibly seeking to capture mainstream viewership. It used to be the case that nationally televised MMA events struggled to break the one million mark in total viewership. The UFC on FOX series has yet to fall below 2.4 million viewers for any of its events.
The improving ratings, and general target audience strategy for the UFC, as well as other promotions (such as Strikeforce’s deal with CBS prior to its acquisition by Zuffa), are clear indicators that MMA is breaking into the mainstream.
Some ardent MMA fans might argue that the promotions are leaving them behind in their pursuit of a more general audience, and that may very well be true. Traditionalists may shudder at the thought of MMA’s assimilation into the mainstream where the masses still refer to the entire sport as “cage fighting”. However, one thing we cannot complain about is that as fans we get to soak up the side effects of mainstream endeavors. We simply get to see more events for free, and watch our beloved MMA develop into the universally recognized sport that we have long championed it to be.