At the weekend the UFC finally returned to the UK for the one and only time this year with a fight card for UFC 138 that looked underwhelming on paper, but delivered big in terms of entertainment for the 10,823 fans that packed into the LG Arena in Birmingham, England.
Nevertheless there’s a growing feeling of unease in the British Isles that they are now being overlooked by the promotion as the number of events arriving on these shores diminishes each year and other emerging markets such as Brazil and Australia rise to prominence.
Following the event on Saturday night UFC president Dana White was full of praise for the fans that attended the event who added tremendously to the atmosphere from the first fight to the last, but he admitted that the UK market is problematic for them.
The trouble is that despite the fact that the UFC have invested considerable time and money in the UK over a number of years and developed a passionate hardcore fan base in the process, it’s still far from reaching it’s full potential and hasn’t taken of like it has in Brazil for example where fighters like Anderson Silva have crossed over into the mainstream and are now household names.
In White’s assessment the problem boils down to the lack of a strong television deal in the market.
“Everybody is always asking me about the U.K. ‘When are you bringing this and that, and you don’t come over here enough,'” White told reporters at the UFC 138 post-fight press conference. “The thing is that we have to secure the right television deal over here. If you look at any of the markets we’ve been in, we’ve stayed in this market a long time. We dug it out here for a while. We’ve got to get the right television deal here.”
For the last few years the UFC has called ESPN UK home, but it’s a subscription based channel on the Virgin Media package, and one that plays second fiddle to the UK’s leading subscription sports channel Sky Sports and so many potential fans aren’t even able to access the vast majority of their events.
Meanwhile The Ultimate Figher series has struggled to find a regular home. Originally based on the now defunct Bravo channel, it’s since bounced from Setanta Sports to 5USA to Sky Sports and then ESPN UK before landing in it’s current home FX for it’s fourteenth season.
Adding to the disjointed television schedule, ESPN UK have recently failed to come to terms with the UFC about certain subsiduary events such as the ‘UFC On Versus’ and ‘UFC On FOX’ series which has left them making alternative arrangements to show those events on Premier Sports, a channel that’s currently only available to Sky customers, not Virgin Media ones.
Clearly this is far from an ideal situation, and with the UFC’s deal with Virgin Media set to expire in the summer of 2012 White is fully aware of the importance of getting the right deal this time around.
Of course this is all happening while the UFC are celebrating the fact that they have secured a major seven year TV deal in the US with FOX which will see them finally sharing the same space as the other major US sporting properties such as the NFL, MLB and Nascar.
For now UK fans can only look on with envy at this development, but White indicates that it could also help over there in the long run too.
“Now that we’re with FOX, let’s see what happens and see what we can get done,” he says.
While he doesn’t expand on the point it’s clear he’s talking about either, or perhaps even both of FOX’s television properties in the UK – FX UK and Sky Sports.
A move to those channels wouldn’t have the same far reaching impact as the UFC’s deal with FOX in the U.S, they’d need to be on the likes of BBC or ITV to find a rough equivalent in terms of potential viewers, but it would certainly be a step up from where they are currently, and if they could secure a long-term deal then it would provide the stability they need to build their fanbase.
Of course the flip-side of all this is that if they are unable to secure a deal such as that mentioned above that improves on their current arrangement then that could negatively impact on the UFC’s future plans for the UK.
Given the UFC’s new alliance with FOX there’s a good chance a deal will be struck, but nothing’s guaranteed, and that’s going to lead to some anxious times for fans in the United Kingdom as the remaining months of the ESPN deal begin to count down.