The date is hanging out there for UFC fans…November 12 at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The date that the UFC finally finds its way to broadcast television. The date where UFC fans think the sport will go mainstream and thousands of families will flock to Target to buy branded apparel and Brock Lesnar toys for Christmas. Is that what the Fox deal is all about? Not really.
Now this is not the first time MMA on the professional level will be seen on broadcast TV. The IFL did the first live show on Fox’s MyNetwork in 2007, and then there was the ProElite/CBS deal that brought the world another side of Gus Johnson along with Kimbo Slice. Neither ended the world as we knew it, nor did they pull numbers or more importantly, advertisers, to sufficiently keep those promotions afloat. The big difference with this partnership is stability. The UFC has built a stable, recognizable brand that supports their core audience and also has enough stickiness so that casual fans know what “Ultimate Fighting” is. That is a tribute to time and consistency that Zuffa, the UFC’s parent company, and partners like Spike TV and Versus are responsible for. There has been no short term rush to hype and push out a product that is lots of sizzle and no steak. Instead, the progression is a steady build. The ironic thing about the first Fox card is that it has lots of names and good fighters, but no real mainstream name that a casual follower can pull to without a little education. There is no Lesnar, no Chuck Lidell, no Randy Couture. There is a mix of interesting personalities and styles and backgrounds which can make this a good test and a good first step for the relationship.
Still, even when the first broadcast numbers are in, the most interesting element will be in the followup. UFC on free TV will never be a weekly staple in prime time. It is event and destination programming, much like boxing was in its heyday. It will be an amazing vehicle for mass promotion for advertisers new and old who are looking to access the demo, and it will also serve as an even greater platform to drive attention to all the other pay per view and stand alone programming the UFC does. None of that will be key to a huge or a small number on the first Fox show, but it will be key to the steady build that UFC has put together over the last five to seven years. It will also not occur in a vacuum of marketing. Instead the Fox broadcast will be a hinge to other very important activation pieces around the event.
One example is the expanded relationship between Microsoft’s XBox Live and the UFC. Microsoft announced that a UFC channel will launch on Dec. 1 for subscribers of the service. The platform will let fans order live events as well as choose on-demand content from the promotion. Social features will show who users think will win a fight and compare fighter records. The first broadcast available for the app will be UFC 140 which takes place on Dec. 10. So while not tied directly to the first Fox fight, the promotion around the fight, with XBox signage in the Octagon, will be invaluable to the next stage of digital activation for a sport brand heavily engaged in the space.
Yes it is true that there is an immediacy to judge success or failure in our 24/7 environment, especially with a property that is so tied to a demo that wants immediate gratification and results. Ironically while that quickness to get results in the Octagon is important, it is less important for a maturing brand like the UFC. From a business perspective it has been a steady growth chart, one with hype mixed in, but with a longer term vision than most fans probably realize. That vision is what makes the UFC an intriguing brand, whether or not you like the violence in the cage or not. Yes November 12 is another key date, but it is not really the beginning, it is the next logical step.