The Ultimate Fighter: Season Six Preview & Future of the Series

September 19, 2007

In January of 2005 the UFC had lost $30 million, with very little to show for it. Dana White knew that television was the key to profitability, but had found a deal incredibly hard to come by despite the company’s embrace of regulation and the legitimacy it was supposed to bring. White had been pitching the idea for a Tuesday Night Fights style show for years with no success. He finally found a suitor in Spike TV, the re-branded Nashville Network, who was looking to establish itself as the television destination for young men.

Spike wasn’t interested in Tuesday Night Fights, but was looking to cash-in on the reality TV craze, and thus the Ultimate Fighter was born. To even get the show on the air the UFC had to agree to pay the $10 million production costs (talk about putting your money where your mouth is) and Spike had to get the blessing of Vince McMahon, whose pro wrestling program WWE Raw they planned to use as a lead in to the new show. The Ultimate Fighter debuted on January 18, 2005 and everything changed. Five seasons later, the UFC has completely turned its business around on the backs of the stars created, or perhaps more appropriately introduced, on TUF.

The sixth installment of the series debuts tonight with Matt Hughes and Welterweight Champion Matt Serra as coaches, building to their title fight at UFC 79 in December. The move to Wednesday reflects how dramatically the environment has changed. In 2005 the product was considered so weak as to need the strong lead in of Spike top rated show WWE Raw. Today the show is strong enough to hold its own with everything, except perhaps football which precipitated the move from Thursday to Wednesday.

Other than a new time slot, not much has changed. This season features a 16-man welterweight tournament with the winner earning a three year contract (believed to be the usual: 3 fights at 12,000, 3 fights at 16,000, 3 fights at 22,0000). The biggest change is the match making where instead of the winning team picking the next fight, “the hammer” will now rotate between coaches each week. The coach with the most wins will then pick the semi-final match-ups.

White has said that this is possibly the strongest season yet and that he expects UFC 79 to break the company’s pay-per-view record (provided Serra v. Hughes is complimented with Liddell v. Silva). Early reports indicate that Matt Hughes comes off as a major heel. Apparently Hughes was reluctant to do the show again and had to be convinced by his wife. In the publicity leading up to the debut he’s talked about being on the backside of his career with only six fights left before retiring.

I think the format of the show is starting to look overexposed and at this point needs really strong personalities to remain compelling. Fortunately, Serra and Hughes deliver in spades. In the future I think they’re going to have to consider mixing things up, at the very least I don’t see how they can continue doing two editions a year without completing burning the concept out.

I’m not sure that the logistics of the show (with the long production turn around time) allow the kind of flexibility needed in the fight game. For example, the Hughes-Serra fight has been held for months, creating a logjam at the top of the division. The format also prevents them from doing the logical thing and moving Serra-Hughes to the November show where they have no main event and no headliners available. Its a cost-benefit analysis as having two of the your top draws treading water for months is the price to pay for three months of television hype for their next match.

Also the show’s greatest strength, the creation of new stars such as Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, and Michael Bisbing, is in danger of diminishing as the years wear on. Today, with new promotions springing up all the time, the number of truly talented undiscovered fighters is very small. As Dave Meltzer recently said, today’s Forrest Griffin is most likely fighting in the IFL or has signed a contract with EliteXC. As it becomes harder and harder to find quality unknown fighters for the show, the incentive to freshen up the format will increase.

I think they could eventually move toward something similar to 24/7 De La HoyaMayweather focusing on different fight camps leading up to major fights, almost like a weekly Countdown or All-Access show. They could turn this footage around quicker (less lag time from real time to TV) and the show would more easily mold around the company’s business direction. For example, if Houston Alexander gets hot with two knockout wins and you want to build him for a big match, you can quickly work him into the show. This would be extremely useful in building up newly acquired fighters like Quinton Jackson. Think what six weeks of reality TV inside Rampage’s life and training camp could have done for Liddell-Rampage II’s already impressive numbers.

The obvious disadvantage of such a format is you lose the fight which is always the highest rated quarter each week on TUF. However, I think there is an argument to be made that with the increase in events (i.e. fights on TV) that pulling back on the actual fight content might be a good way to go. Fight Nights should draw more viewers if it’s the only opportunity to see first run UFC fights on TV. Also a sacrifice in the ratings from week to week is a small price to pay for increased pay-per-view revenue which is what one would expect to be the result of a well down show building the top fighters in the promotion each week in prime time. Furthermore, there is a better than fair chance that the increased star power of the show could more than makeup for the loss the fight quarter in the ratings.

For now the old adage if it ain’t broke don’t fix it probably holds true, but it will be interesting to see how this season holds up in the ratings. Without the excuse of competition from football and with the benefit of two strong personalities in Hughes and Serra and what looks from previews and advance screenings to be one of the crazist seasons in the house yet, the pressure is on to deliver in the ratings. One thing is for certain whatever happens to TUF from here, we wouldn’t be talking about the UFC today without it.

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