UFC & Fox: What should fans expect?

At this point, it seems like everybody except the UFC itself has confirmed the news that the fight company has agreed to a long-term television deal with Fox.

We’d heard rumblings for a couple weeks that the UFC’s once-hot talks with NBC Sports had cooled and on Tuesday the Sports Business Journal broke the story that the promotion and Fox were on the verge of announcing a partnership. Sources at the network have reportedly confirmed the news with MMA news websites and a vaguely defined conference call is scheduled for Thursday afternoon. UFC President Dana White has so far refused to confirm or deny, but for all intents and purposes, it looks like this thing is actually going down.

If true, it means we’ve finally arrived at the holy grail of the UFC’s 10-year run under Zuffa, LLC. For the first time, MMA’s biggest (and, let’s face it, best) promoter will get the opportunity to showcase live fights on network television, with all the added benefits and pressures that come along with it.

So, what can we expect from a relationship between the UFC and Fox?

Expect better results than what we’ve seen before, for starters. Network television has long been the white whale of the MMA industry after a couple of lesser companies – EliteXC and pre-Zuffa Strikeforce – both chased it, with disastrous consequences. Criticize UFC brass as you like, but one of the things we know they can do successfully is produce live MMA shows that look great on TV. Zuffa has the capability to be far more consistent and far more professional than EliteXC or Strikeforce ever were and if a marriage between an MMA company and a television conglomerate ever had a chance to work out, it’s this one.

Because of that, don’t expect much to change about the look and feel of live events. The UFC has always been uber-protective of its product and an insistence on retaining exclusive control over its production values has killed potential TV deals in the past. Aside from a few new network logos floating around, we shouldn’t anticipate much different in the look and feel of UFC shows. It’s not like Joe Buck and Tim McCarver will be calling the action from cageside. At least, we hope not. It’ll probably still be Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan. Just, you know, on a five-second delay.

Expect expectations. If reports are true that bidding reached as much as $90 million for the UFC’s current menu of programming plus four live shows per year, Fox is certainly going to expect some significant return on its investment. Exactly what will constitute a “success” for the UFC’s early ventures on Fox remains to be seen, but with Strikeforce pulling down an average of 4.04 million viewers during its first show on CBS in Nov., 2009, it doesn’t feel unreasonable that the UFC would be able to meet such numbers in the early going and far exceed them over the long-term.

To do that, of course, it’ll have to commit some of its top talent to free TV broadcasts with a regularity it never has before. The UFC’s main focus will likely always be pay-per-view, but with the vastly increased exposure and payoff Fox can provide compared to previous partners SpikeTV and Versus, it’ll need to consistently present the best it has to offer in order to capitalize on that potential. If anything, network television will give the UFC a greater ability to familiarize a far wider audience with its top fighters and then mobilize said audience to PPV.

Expect competition. The door has not yet even slammed behind the UFC and there are rumblings that SpikeTV might move to replace it with Bellator. There were additional recent reports that the new ProElite venture is also already thinking about television, though its executives have said that would be premature. One thing is certain however, if the UFC and Fox can maintain a successful partnership for any amount of time, you’ll see new competitors start to appear, as the other networks will certainly want to get their own taste of the action and end up playing copycat.