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Fox Sports, UFC sign 7-year mixed martial arts programming deal

The agreement raises mixed martial arts to a mainstream TV sport. UFC fights will be broadcast on Fox and Friday night events on Fox's FX cable channel.

August 19, 2011|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times

Fox Sports no longer is pulling any punches with Ultimate Fighting Championship, announcing a seven-year deal that brings mixed martial arts fights to the Fox broadcast network and Friday night events to the company's FX cable channel.

Fox declined to disclose financial terms, but Sports Business Daily reported the multiyear package was worth as much as $90 million.

The deal, announced Thursday, is significant because it elevates the sport of mixed martial arts to the television mainstream. Fox has become the broadcasting home of big-ticket championship events: baseball's World Series, auto racing's Daytona 500 and football's Super Bowl once every three years.

"This is where I wanted to be, and this is the deal that I wanted," Dana White, UFC president, said during a morning news conference at a Fox Sports television studio in Los Angeles. "It took a long time to happen."

The two groups have been in talks for almost a decade. Fox Sports Chairman David Hill conceded that it took several years for him to recognize the potency of mixed martial arts. He and others over age 50 grew up watching boxing, he said, adding that today's youth is more attuned to the "three-dimensional" nature of mixed martial arts.

In addition, during his tenure overseeing programming at DirecTV, which offered pay-per-view mixed martial arts, Hill said, "We saw the widespread popularity of the sport. This group has taken a little niche sport and in 10 years they have made it into a mainstream sport....The growth and potential of this is explosive."

UFC's television homes have been on Comcast Corp.'s Versus channel and Viacom Inc.'s Spike.

"'The Ultimate Fighter' Season 14 in September will be our last," Spike said in a statement. "Our six-year partnership with the UFC has been incredibly beneficial in building both our brands, and we wish them all the best in the future."

The Fox deal provides Zuffa, owner of the UFC brand, with a platform on more networks — and more prominence. The sport will make its prime-time debut live on the Fox broadcast network Saturday, Nov. 12. There will be four events a year on Fox Broadcasting.

Beginning next year, FX will offer Friday night fight events 32 weeks a year, including the retooled "The Ultimate Fighter" program. Fox's niche sports Fuel channel and Spanish-language Fox Deportes also will provide UFC programming.

Founded in 1993, Ultimate Fighting Championship has seen muscular growth since it was acquired by Zuffa in 2001. UFC's flirtation with Fox Sports dates back to the summer of 2002, when Fox Sports carried the company's first non-pay-for-view event on basic cable TV, pulling in a large audience.

For FX, the sport will help to lure more young male viewers to the channel, which has built its reputation as a leader in edgy programming with "The Shield," "Rescue Me" and the quirky fan-favorite comedy "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

"We can now stand toe-to-toe with anyone in our competitive set," John Landgraf, general manager of FX Networks, said during the news conference. In the past, such rivals as USA Network and TNT have rounded out their offerings and boosted ratings with sports.

"The UFC," Landgraf said, "is finally going to put us on a level playing field with our competitors."

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