Let It Bleed: UFC Is Big Business for Fox

Network sells out sixth MMA card, doubles up on clients

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has gone mainstream, and the proof is in the ad inventory.

On the eve of Fox’s sixth live UFC showcase, the network is completely sold out for the duration of its two-hour broadcast. And according to Peter Vesey, vp, ad sales, Fox Sports Media Group, the broadcaster has literally doubled down on advertising partners, now boasting 16 national clients for Saturday night’s UFC card.

UFC newcomers include representatives from key categories, including beverages (Coca-Cola), insurance (Geico), automotive (Chrysler) and telecom/media (DirecTV). Sprint is a last-minute entry, committing to an in-fight unit on Thursday night.

Among the returning sponsors is Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Bud Light, which has a multiyear contract in place with Fox.

The most recent UFC on Fox broadcast, which featured six undercard and four main card bouts, delivered 4.4 million viewers on Dec. 8. More importantly, the event put up big numbers in the target demos, averaging a 3.1 rating among men 18-49 and a 2.8 with the 18-34 set. Headlined by a Benson Henderson-Nate Diaz lightweight title brawl, last month’s UFC broadcast peaked during the main event (5.7 million viewers).

Saturday night’s card will be structured like the December package, with Demetrious Johnson and John Dodson set to headline in the UFC flyweight championship bout. Unless some of the fights go longer than anticipated, UFC on Fox 6 will air from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

At 11 p.m., Fox will run a special 90-minute version of The Ultimate Fighter, which on Tuesday night had its Season 17 premiere on sibling net FX. Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the season opener drew 1.51 million viewers and a 0.8 in the 18-49 demo. 

After moving from the HUT-poor Friday night lineup, TUF enjoyed its highest deliveries on FX, averaging 1.03 million adults 18-49 and 677,000 men 18-49. 

Another UFC first timer, Harley-Davidson, is the mat sponsor for the special reprise of TUF. The brand will be featured in the opening title card as well as in three interstitials. Speaking of big bikes, Vesey said that cast members from FX’s popular outlaw-motorcycle club drama Sons of Anarchy will be in the crowd at Chicago’s United Center on Saturday night.

Along with the quarterly UFC bouts on Fox and FX’s stewardship of the TUF series, Fuel TV also carries a good deal of shoulder programming, including the Tuesday night studio shows UFC Tonight and UFC Ultimate Insider. UFC Tonight is sponsored by Dodge’s Dart marque, while its lead-out show is presented by Twix.

“Fuel TV has helped an entire group of mainstream brands ease their way into UFC,” Vesey said, numbering Nike, Gatorade, KFC and Schick among those clients who are testing the waters on the niche network. Fuel TV is the perfect size to try out mixed martial arts sponsorship opportunities, reaching nearly 37 million homes, per the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.

The UFC shows are the most-watched offerings on Fuel TV. On Saturday, Jan. 19, a three-hour block of UFC preliminary bouts averaged 255,000 viewers—quadruple the network’s average prime-time delivery for the week.

Despite the prevailing misconception that the UFC is little more than a blood sport, clients value the MMA franchise for its stature among the hard-to-reach young male audience. Per Nielsen, UFC on Fox packages skew younger than any other major sports franchise on TV, boasting a median age of 36, edging the NBA by a hair (37). By comparison, the NFL’s median age is 47.

Entering the second of its seven-year partnership with UFC, Fox sees nothing but upside. “Our relationship with [UFC president] Dana White and Lorenzo [Fertitta, chairman and CEO of UFC parent company Zuffa] is the gold standard,” Vesey said. “And we work closely with their sales and marketing guys … because we all have the same goal, which is to help clients get a much more accurate perception of what the UFC is all about.”

Look for a healthy complement of buys from studios and video game titles/consoles. Among the movies that will be showcased during Saturday night’s card are Paramount Pictures’ Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and the fifth installment in the John McClane-saves-the-world franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard (20th Century Fox).

UFC on Fox 6 should make short work of its competition. The fight card will go head-to-head against NBC’s female-skewing women’s figure skating coverage; an encore presentation of ABC’s new competition series, The Taste; and CBS’ roster of a three-month-old NCIS: Los Angeles rerun leading into a new installment of 48 Hours.

Pricing for the first UFC on Fox event (November 2011) effectively doubled the network’s standard Saturday night rate, as a 30-second spot cost a little more than $100,000. Vesey confirmed that rates for tomorrow night’s card remain in the low six-figure range.

The UFC’s maturation has played a huge role in bringing mainstream acceptance to MMA. In 1999, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 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 drawn millions of fans to its pay-per-view events while maintaining a high profile on cable TV.

Even Sen. McCain revised his view of the sport; in 2007, he acknowledged that the UFC “has grown up.”

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