When the UFC first announced the specifics of the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter, attentive MMA fans were understandably excited. Not only would the program’s latest season feature an exclusively female roster, but it would introduce an entire new division to the UFC while also crowning its champion from the field of 115-pound contestants. Truly, this would be the most important season of The Ultimate Fighter since its inception, and it seemed like the many evangelists for women’s MMA would finally be justified beyond Ronda Rousey’s rapid ascent to stardom.
In reality, the ratings for TUF 20 have simply been OK. The much-anticipated debut episode did get a total of just over 2.8 million viewers, but more than half of that number can be attributed to a rebroadcast on Fox after Sunday football on Sept. 14. The original Fox Sports 1 broadcast from Sept. 10 received just 536,000 live viewers, which was the lowest live debut in the history of The Ultimate Fighter. That live number looks to be about the average of the four episodes aired thus far, with the subsequent three netting 574,000, 433,000 and 577,000 viewers on their respective Wednesday debuts. None of the three episodes after the first was able to surpass a million total views, even counting DVR and rebroadcasts.
Are these numbers worrisome? Not really, but they’re certainly not what the UFC and Fox were hoping for, given the attention the network gave to TUF’s 20th season prior to its premiere. Perhaps, then, it’s not so bad that the show has temporarily been bumped off television until Fox Sports 1 no longer has playoff baseball to broadcast.
Initially, this column was going to be about how Fox Sports 1 was doing The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC and maybe even women’s MMA in general a significant disservice by placing the season on temporary hiatus rather than rescheduling it for another night or airing it elsewhere until baseball was over, but looking at things a little more closely, that would have been entirely wrongheaded.
For starters, there’s the fact that playoff baseball still holds the attention of a significant number of sports fans. While the Milwaukee Brewers’ commitment to mediocrity has rendered null my interest in the sport, the love for the National Pastime is still very strong in places with winning teams and/or a tradition of success. Throw in the playoff atmosphere and absence of any other weekday sports and it’s a no-brainer for Fox Sports 1 to broadcast the MLB over the UFC, particularly as Fox tries to enhance the reputation of its sports-focused subsidiary still more or less in its infancy.
My other thought would have been to air TUF 20 on Fox Sports 2 during these two weeks with baseball playoffs. Doing so tonight, for example, would have meant bumping the last 30 minutes of a women’s World Cup qualifier and the first half of highlights from the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifiers. Perhaps, though, the folks at Fox Sports expect a wider audience for soccer than for MMA, which would make sense strictly from a numbers standpoint. Another thing to consider is that many cable packages don’t include Fox Sports 2, so moving it there would have had the same effect as not airing it at all for some fans. Similar considerations would need to be made before moving TUF 20 to a different night for a few weeks as well. Along with disrupting the rest of the programming schedule, one has to think there would be a significant number of viewers who would not get the message and miss the episodes entirely.
Left with a bunch of inconvenient options, then, the UFC and Fox Sports probably made the right call to simply postpone TUF 20 for a few weeks until Fox Sports 1 has room again on Wednesday nights to air it. The question now becomes how the multi-week absence will impact ratings for the rest of the season. On one hand, the disruption in the schedule could lead some viewers to forget about the show once it’s back on. This would probably not be a significant drop in audience, given the base of hardcore fans that likely comprises the majority of TUF 20’s existing viewership, but the pause for baseball has broken the Wednesday night TUF “habit” that some fans had no doubt formed since the season’s start. Then, of course, there’s the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” side of the argument, which would posit that TUF’s broadcast hiatus would get fans more excited to watch the program once it’s back on the air next Wednesday. While I understand the sentiment behind this line of thinking, I strongly doubt we’ll suddenly see a ratings spike just because we’ve gone two weeks without our MMA-based reality competition series.
Instead, it’s most likely that TUF 20 will continue to see the sorts of middling ratings garnered by its first four episodes. Again, probably not what the UFC was hoping for, but certainly a validation that there’s a place for women’s MMA on television, and not just one fight at a time. Perhaps if TUF 20 (or a member of its cast) had caught fire the same way that Rousey had, Fox would have chosen an alternative path than simply not airing the show for a few weeks. With merely average numbers like we’ve seen thus far in the season, however, the network had no choice but to bet on baseball.
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