Fox Sports Lands UFC Rights

Multimillion dollar pact brings fight phenomenon to FX, Fox

Fox Sports is stepping into the octagon with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, inking a seven-year rights deal with the mixed martial arts organization.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed but sources said Fox Sports will pony up around $90 million per year for the package.

While the bulk of the UFC events will air on FX, the broadcast network is also getting into the act. Fox will carry four UFC brawls per year, while FX is slated to carry 32 weekly events, including the unscripted series The Ultimate Fighter.

Fox Sports chairman and CEO David Hill said he first began discussing a deal with the UFC a decade ago. “Sports in television is the ultimate democratic process,” Hill said. “Television can’t make a sport, it can only enhance it. . . . I can’t overemphasize the way this sport has grown in 10 years.”

The UFC will continue to handle production for the fights, while Fox will manage pre- and postshow coverage.

Fox Sports is still working out the logistics of promoting the UFC across the networks. “A lot of the tactical ideas are yet to come,” said Fox Sports president Eric Shanks. “We’re digging in today to figure that out.”

The UFC is a particularly good fit for FX, which specializes in scripted bad-assery (The Shield, Sons of Anarchy), irreverent, guy-friendly comedy (The League, Louie, Archer), and movies. Lately, it has begun investing in sports properties—this year FX will air weekly Pac-12 and Big 12 college football games.

FX is also eyeing the new NFL package, which goes up for bid next month. Expected to launch at the start of the 2012 season, the eight-game Thursday night slate should fetch around $600 million per year.

“Both UFC and FX have shown tremendous growth over the last 10 years. We’re no longer an emerging network; we’re established,” said FX president John Landgraf. “Our ratings are up there with all the other networks on an entertainment business. Our competitors had professional sports to set them apart and now so do we.”

In the second quarter of 2011, FX finished sixth in the race for adults 18-49, averaging 717,000 members of the demo in prime time, up 16 percent versus the year-ago period.

The broadcast component represents a major step forward for the bloody, bone-crunching phenomenon, which partisans hail as the country’s fastest-growing sport. The media contract is particularly noteworthy, given the public uproar that greeted the UFC in its early days.

In 1999, Arizona Sen. John McCain spearheaded an effort to ban the UFC, likening the sport to “human cockfighting.” All told, 36 states enacted legislation to ban “no-holds barred” brawls.

In response, the UFC began to change the rules governing its events, outlawing some of the more lethal practices. For example, a fighter can no longer kick his opponent in the head when he’s on the canvas.

Since then, the UFC has flirted with the mainstream, drawing millions of fans to its pay-per-view events while maintaining a high profile on cable TV. Even Sen. McCain has revised his view of the sport; in 2007, he acknowledged that the UFC “has grown up.”

The Fox deal puts an end to Spike TV’s six-year relationship with the brand. In a statement released Thursday, the Viacom network noted that the partnership “has been incredibly beneficial in building both our brands.”

Spike’s UFC ratings have deteriorated since the first year of their partnership, falling from an average draw of around 1 million viewers to below 500,000 in 2011. The most recent installment of The Ultimate Fighter Unleashed drew just 467,000 viewers on Aug. 12.

Comcast/NBC Sports also had courted the UFC, as executives hoped to air a beefed-up slate of live events on the cable net Versus. (Versus’ coverage of Sunday night’s two-hour UFC event delivered 766,000 viewers, according to Nielsen.)

If a deal had been reached, NBCU’s G4 brand would have been reconfigured to reflect the UFC ethos.

“We looked at a bunch of different deals and one was a joint venture to launch our own network,” said Lorenzo Fertitta, referring to the stalled G4 initiative. “This license structure made a lot of sense with Fox. I think a UFC channel would be successful, but at the end of the day, we put on fights and we don’t run a network.”

Fertitta is the chairman and CEO of UFC parent company Zuffa.