UFC 141 a dud, but 2011 a huge year

UFC 141 wasn’t exactly a blockbuster for the nation’s leading mixed martial arts promoter; the 12,158 attendance and $3.1 million in gate revenue Friday weren’t the best UFC saw in 2011. And popular fighter and moneymaker Brock Lesnar announced his retirement shortly after a technical knockout ended his first fight back in 14 months.

But make no mistake: 2011 was a huge year for UFC. A seven-year, $100 million television contract with FOX reached in August ushered in a new era for UFC, which will have live fights on broadcast television up to four times a year and increased programming on FOX-owned FX and FUEL TV.

The first broadcast event under the new contract took place in November with an hour-long “Ultimate Fighting Championship” that was seen by 5.7 million viewers, more than any previous UFC event, and the most for any televised fight in eight years. Perhaps more importantly, the event garnered a 4.3 rating among men age 18 to 34, advertisers’ most prized demographic, which was enough to top every regular-season college football game to date with the exception of the LSU-Alabama game.

UFC also saw increased interest on the secondary ticket market in 2011. StubHub says it sold 20 percent more tickets than in 2010. UFC 129 in Toronto on April 30 produced more sales for StubHub than any prior UFC event.

The Toronto fight was the first stadium event for UFC. The recorded attendance of 55,724 broke all UFC and North American MMA records and produced $12.1 million in gate revenue. The previous records for attendance and gate revenue were less than half that, at 23,152 and $5.4 million.

Sportsbook Bovada.lv says it saw growing interest in UFC, specifically on UFC 129. Wagering on the fight was at an 11 percent increase over the previous most-bet fight in UFC. Sportsbook manager Kevin Bradley said there was a 15 percent increase in the total number of wagers placed in 2011 on UFC, and more significantly, a 14 percent increase in the number of people placing bets.

The new television deal with FOX will give UFC significantly more access to fans than ever before, but there’s work to be done. FUEL TV aired UFC’s “Countdown” show for the first time last week leading up to UFC 141 and saw less-than-exciting results. An estimated 15,000 households watched “Countdown to UFC 141,” down from the average 500,000 who watched the show on SPIKE TV. However, SPIKE TV is currently available in more than 60 million more homes than FUEL TV, which is a premium channel through most cable providers.

The UFC and FUEL TV hope to appeal to more fans Sunday with a 24-hour marathon of UFC programming. “FUEL TV's New Year's Day marathon is essentially Day 1 of FOX's seven-year relationship with UFC," said George Greenberg, FUEL TV executive vice president and general manager, in a statement. "We have no doubt that our programming and cross-network promotional strategy, along with a great working relationship with UFC management, will drive growth for UFC and FUEL TV over the long term."

FUEL TV will feature more than 2,000 hours of UFC programming in 2012, with 100 hours of live fights, weigh-ins, preliminary bouts and pre- and post-fight shows. "UFC Tonight," a weekly half-hour news and highlights show, will premiere Tuesday, and the first live weigh-ins and post-fight shows will premiere around UFC 142 on Jan. 13-14.

Although FUEL TV is currently in only 36 million homes, the network says it has seen an 11 percent increase in subscribers since the announcement of FOX’s partnership. UFC will be able to reach more viewers with its inaugural "UFC on FX" event on Jan. 20.