This Saturday night’s ‘UFC On FOX 1: Velasquez Vs Dos Santos’ event is a hugely important event both for the future growth of both the UFC and the sport in general.

The promotion’s debut offering on FOX will at last give them the chance to introduce potentially millions of new fans to the sport ahead of their official switch to the network in January.

With that in mind the question everybody wants to know is how many people will tune in, and what would be an acceptable number for UFC and FOX?

While the simple truth is that nobody knows for sure, in this article we’ll look to establish some broad guidelines based on current and historic data along with a number of other factors such as the promotional push given to the event and the fighters involved.

First things first, let’s get a feel for the kind of TV ratings FOX can generate during the primetime Saturday night slot (9pm-10pm ET) that the UFC will be occupying this weekend.

FOX Primetime Ratings (Saturday):

SATURDAY 15th October

  • 8:00-8:02        ALCS PRE-GAME: 4.7 Million Viewers
  • 8:02-11:35      ALCS GAME 6: 7.7 Million Viewers

FOX ranked #1 for the night on a total primetime basis among Adults 18-49, Adults 18-34 and Total Viewers.

SATURDAY 22nd October

  • 8:00 – 9:00    World Series Game 3 – Cardinals At Rangers – 10.24 million viewers
  • 9:00 – 10:00   World Series Game 3 – Cardinals At Rangers – 11.53 million viewers

Again a dominant night for FOX thanks to the MLB World Series.

SATURDAY 29th October

  • 8:00-10:00 AMERICA’S Most Wanted:  4.3 Million Total Viewers

A special AMERICA’S Most Wanted led FOX to a #2 rank among Adults 18-49, Adults 18-34 and Total Viewers.

SATURDAY November 5th

  • 8:00-8:30 COPS: 3.5 Million Viewers
  • 8:30-9:01 COPS 2: 4.0 Million Viewers
  • 9:01-10:00 Terra Nova (repeat): 1.9 Million Total Viewers

FOX ranked #2 for the night during primetime among Adults 18-49 and #3 among Adults 18-34.

As you can see FOX’s Saturday night schedule has been somewhat disjointed over the past month, ranging from live MLB games that have scored stellar numbers through to  4.3 million for a special edition of America’s Most Wanted, plus a sub-par 1.9 million for a re-run of drama series Terra Nova.

Realistically the UFC can only dream of pulling in the numbers that a major World Series game can at this stage, but 4.3 million is a more realistic target while 1.9 million would be considered disastrous given that even an hour long ‘UFC On FOX Primetime: Velasquez Vs Dos Santos’ special promoting the show pulled in 2 million viewers on FOX at the end of October during the afternoon.

Next let’s move on to establishing the kind of numbers other MMA events airing on network television have been able to produce.

Past MMA Event Watermarks On Network TV:

May 2008: ELITEXC: PRIMETIME On CBS

This event marked MMA’s first big exposure on primetime television as CBS got behind the Elite XC promotion who had a superstar in the making in Kimbo Slice taking on journeyman James Thompson in the main event.

The event drew an estimated 4,300,000 average viewers, with a peak at 6,510,000 on CBS making it the most watched MMA event in history.

October 2008: ELITEXC: HEAT On CBS

Elite XC returned to CBS later that year with Kimbo Slice once again on show taking on late replacement Seth Petruzelli.

This time the show Averaged 4,560,000 viewers.

November 2009: Strikeforce: Fedor Vs Rogers On CBS

After Elite XC went bust CBS then tried once again to tap into the MMA market via the Strikeforce promotion who had just signed up heavyweight superstar Fedor Emelianenko.

The event drew an estimated 4,040,000 viewers, peaking at 5,060,000.

It should be stressed that Kimbo Slice is something of an MMA anomoly.  Despite not actually being all that good in the cage he’s a star on a level that few MMA fighters can get close to thanks to the fame he generated after his pre-MMA backyard brawling videos turned him into a YouTube sensation.

To give you an indication of how he can move the needle, CBS also aired another Elite XC show in July of the same year featuring the likes of Robbie Lawler, Jake Shields and Nick Diaz which only garnered 2,620,00 viewers.

Therefore the Strikeforce’s show in 2009 is a more valid comparison to Saturday night’s show given that Fedor was well known amongst the hardcore fan base, but was essentially a new name to the casual audience you’ll find on network TV.  Despite that CBS were able to hype him up as ‘The Baddest Man On The Planet’ and draw 4 million+ viewers as a result.  FOX have adopted a similar strategy for this weekend’s show which faces a similar problem in that neither Cain Velasquez or Junior Dos Santos will be widely recognised outside of MMA circles.

So we’ve seen how other promotion’s have faired during MMA’s limited exposure on network TV, but how has the sport’s biggest promotion faired operating on cable TV?  Let’s find out.

UFC Television Watermarks:

September 2007: UFC 75: Rampage Vs Henderson on Spike TV

4.7 million viewers, peaking at 5.6 million during the main event.

October 2010: TUF 10 Episode 3: Kimbo Slice Vs Roy Nelson on Spike TV

5.3 million viewers, peaking at 6.1 million during the fight.

Of course since 2005 the UFC have called Spike TV home, and during the course of that run they have managed to produce some impressive numbers given that Spike is not in the same league as either FOX or CBS.

What’s particularly impressive about UFC 75 is that it actually aired live in the UK, but was only on tape-delay via Spike yet it still produced big numbers thanks to a strong card for for a free-to-air event headlined by a title unification bout between Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Dan Henderson.   Most of the UFC’s subsequent offerings on Spike have failed to deliver even half the numbers produced on that night, indicating the importance of star power and the lure of title fights.

Again Kimbo’s appearance on TUF completely blew up the figures they were able to achieve last year on the show.  Not even UFC superstars like Brock Lesnar and GSP appearing as coaches in recent series have been able to get anywhere close to the ratings the backyard brawler generated.

So, now we have a good indication of the kind of figures that have been achievable in both MMA’s past, and on FOX in the present day.  Now let’s assess Saturday night’s event in more detail.

UFC On FOX Promotional Push:

If the ‘UFC On FOX’ event fails to perform on Saturday night no-one will be able to say it was due to a lack of promotion on the part of FOX.  Since the fight was first announced they have adopted an aggressive advertising campaign, in particular dropping in various ad segments for the title fight during their other major sporting properties such as the NFL, MLB and Nascar.

They also aired a UFC Primetime special in-between NFL coverage a couple of Sundays ago pulling in two million viewers and they have an unprecidented amount of coverage planned in the days ahead with FOX, Fuel TV, FOX Radio and FOX Deportes all set to get in on the act with UFC related programming.

Meanwhile the UFC also have far more capability to spread the word about the event to their dedicated fan base than previous MMA promotions operating in this space.

Overall this is far more coverage than we’ve ever seen before for an MMA event on network television.

UFC On FOX  Star Power:

As we’ve seen from the ratings earlier in the article, the star power that the likes of a Kimbo Slice can bring to the table can have a huge impact on the ratings.

The reality is that neither Cain Velasquez or Junior Dos Santos is on that level yet and neither do they have the proven PPV drawing potential we expect from fighters like Brock Lesnar or GSP who can get up close to, and even at times beyond the 1 million buy barrier.

Also, both Velasquez or Dos Santos are likeable, but they don’t have the kind of personalities or the pre-fight rivarly that’s going to produce ratings gold so from that perspective it could be seen as a bit of a gamble on the UFC’s part.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat however.  In many respects it’s actually the promotion itself that’s the star here.  The ‘UFC’ is the brand that’s become synonymous with the sport, and the likes of Strikeforce and Elite XC simply aren’t at the races in comparison to the awareness and interest levels that they enjoy.

They also score big due to the fact that they are offering a heavyweight title fight on free-to-air TV, something that we’ve never seen from an MMA promotion before.  Regardless of whether people know the fighters or not, there’s always added interest when there’s a title involved and it’s two big guys that are fighting over it.

Conclusion

So, what kind of number is the UFC likely to pull this weekend?

It’s still hard to say, but based on the data you’d have to imagine that around  an average viewership of 4 million will be seen as a baseline.  Even on Spike TV the UFC have managed to produce that in the past and both Elite XC and Strikeforce have also reached that landmark on CBS, so anything below that number on FOX would be a major disappointment.

As for a ceiling, I don’t expect the UFC to be able to pull in the 10 million+ that the likes of the NFL and MLB are capable of.  I’d imagine somewhere in the 7-8 million range would be as high as they will be hoping for.

Finally, my own gut feeling is that it may fall around the 5-6 million mark and I think that’s a number most people would be comfortable with.  My rational is that a mixture of the UFC’s brand name, the fact that it’s a heavyweight title fight and FOX’s extensive promotional push is going to help it exceed what other promotion’s have managed on network TV.

However, I think the fact that it’s only a one-hour show and neither Velasquez or Dos Santos is yet a crossover star will limit just how big it’s going to be.

For the record, when the event was first announced both Dana White and FOX’s Dave Hill were asked if they believed the event would outdo Kimbo Slice’s peak rating of over 6 million viewers with EliteXC.

“If I was a betting man, which I am, I’d probably put a couple of bucks on the fact that we will,” Hill replied.

“I’m not going to be too cocky here and trump what David Hill said, but I’ll tell you right now, I’m expecting to blow that number out of the water,” White responded.

Personally I’d be delighted if that is the case.  We’ll find out for sure this weekend.

Article by RossC for fightofthenight

Network TV data sourced from TVByTheNumbers.

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