Eight years ago, not many networks looked to the ring for a ratings boost, much less for core programming.

Pro wrestling’s biggest franchise, World Wrestling Entertainment, was still operating under a cloud of suspicion regarding steroid use by its athletes; boxing’s golden era of big marquee names in the heavyweight division was nearing its end; and mixed martial arts was trying to shake its image as a radical, new violent sport.

These days, the ring sports aren’t just pinning down record viewership numbers. For some networks, they’re helping to identify and build brand recognition among viewers. In 2009, USA Network’s WWE Monday Night Raw franchise averaged 5.8 million viewers, its best showing since 2001. It performed better than two of the network’s popular original series, Psych and In Plain Sight.

Spike TV’s Ultimate Fighter reality competition series has become the face of the men’s-targeted network and its most-popular show, averaging a series record 3.4 million viewers in its 10th season.

Even HBO’s 37-year-old World Championship Boxing series delivered a knockout ratings punch in 2009, averaging a cumulative 2.4 million viewers for eight live prize-fight telecasts, a 20% increase over 2008.

Cable executives say the fast-paced, drama-enthused and simplistic mano y mano nature of ring-sports events and series have helped catapult the genre to new heights, drawing recession weary fans with brute competition. Moreover, promoters have successfully built multidimensional characters out of their most provocative challengers.

“It’s an easy experience to participate in — most consumers understand it,” said HBO Sports senior vice president of programming Kery Davis. “When you sit down to watch a football game, sometimes you have to explain to people what it means to go 10 yards for a first down. When two guys are in a ring, people have an easier understanding of whose winning and who’s losing and what the objective is — you hit to hurt the other guy.”

In the 1950s, pro wrestling and boxing dominated primetime, as networks looked for live, drama-filled and familiar content, said Robert Thompson, founding director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for TV and Popular Culture.

Today, ring-sports shows and events are found in time blocks on basic and premium cable networks. Pro wrestling’s biggest franchise, World Wrestling Entertainment, has two weekly series on cable: Monday Night Raw on USA Network and ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) on Syfy. Upstart wrestling outfit Total Non-Stop Action also has found a home on Spike TV though its weekly series TNA! Impact.

Guys Love Rings

Boxing fans can count ESPN’s Friday Night Fights series and Fox Sports Net’s new monthly boxing series, in association with Top Rank, to deliver action-packed fisticuffs to their living rooms. Premium networks Showtime and HBO also showcase the sweet science: the long-running monthly Saturday-night Showtime Championship Boxing series will continue in 2010, while HBO is expected to offer around eight live boxing shows this year as part of its World Championship Boxing.

Mixed martial arts is also throwing punches on several networks. The genre’s leader, Ultimate Fighting Championship, is airing three to four live events on Spike TV in 2010 while producing the 11th season of its popular Ultimate Fighter reality series. Versus will also air two live UFC shows as well as content from UFC-owned MMA franchise World Extreme Cagefighting.

On the premium side, Showtime will offer as many as eight events this year from StrikeForce, an upstart mixed-martial-arts franchise.

For these cable networks, ring-sports programming delivers strong ratings, particularly within the hard-to-reach demographic of men 18 to 49. “Young guys love what goes on in those two rings, whether it’s the octagon or the wrestling ring — that’s our bread and butter and it’s a place where we’ve been really successful,” said Spike TV president Kevin Kay.

Indeed, The Ultimate Fighter averaged 3.4 million viewers in its 10th season on Spike last year — nearly double the reality competition show’s average of 2 million for its previous nine seasons. The series finale, which featured YouTube MMA sensation Kimbo Slice, peaked at 6 million viewers, according to the network.

In 2005, Spike took a chance on the then-upstart UFC and Ultimate Fighter despite the brand’s years of negative baggage. After a successful run on PPV in the mid-1990s, the sport became toxic for operators after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) referred to UFC’s no-holds-barred action as human cockfighting. Political backlash led cable operators, who had reaped the revenue benefits of mixed-martial-arts events, to pull all such programming from pay-per-view.

Back on Its Feet

But under the auspices of new owners and new president Dana White, UFC righted the ship and became an appealing franchise to Spike. Since then, it’s been one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. — and Spike has used its appeal to build its brand identity among its target audience of young men, said Kay.

“I think they’ve helped put Spike brand on the map,” he said. “UFC wouldn’t be where it is today without us and we wouldn’t be where we are without them.”

Comcast-owned sports network Versus has also jumped into the UFC octagon, reaching a multiyear deal to air two live events in 2010. The network has been carrying UFC-owned World Extreme Cagefighting events since 2007.

“It’s a perfect fit for the Versus brand in terms of authentic real competition in a sport where we can position ourselves,” said executive vice president of programming, production and business operations Mark Fein. 

While the UFC was a ratings and brand building champion for Spike and Versus, the WWE played a similar role for USA. When USA decided to launch its “Characters Welcome” brand in 2005, the WWE and its cast of colorful and popular characters were an important part of the network’s overall brand identity strategy, according to executive vice president of marketing, digital and brand strategy Chris McCumber.

“The characters from WWE are so unique and the fans are passionate about them — that’s where creating the brand using [the WWE] was so valuable,” he said. “It’s been an incredible cornerstone for the network.”

The network has remained steadfastly in WWE’s corner, even as the company has battled allegations of steroid use among its well-conditioned athletes. In 2007, the sports-entertainment company suspended 10 wrestlers for violating its steroid and drug policy, 13 years after WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon was acquitted of steroid conspiracy charges.

On June 24, 2007, Chris Benoit, a WWE performer, killed his wife and son and hung himself. Tests showed his testosterone level was 10 times normal when he committed suicide.

Then, in January 2009, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to the Office of the National Drug Control Policy informing it that WWE and TNA had not effectively dealt with steroid use in the wrestling industry. Waxman, chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, questioned WWE, TNA, and other professional-wrestling promotions on their steroid policies and on steroid abuse. He found that in the first year of the WWE’s testing program, which began in March 2006, “40% of wrestlers tested positive for steroids and other drugs even after being warned in advance that they were going to be tested.”

TNA’s policies had equal weaknesses.

To combat potential steroid abuses, WWE officials pointed to the company’s Talent Wellness Program, which it claims “is as good as the testing programs initiated by major sports leagues, government agencies and corporations.” The program randomly tests WWE athletes for a minimum of four times as year with penalties for positive test results ranging from suspension to termination. Since its inception in 2006, WWE wrestler suspensions for steroid and drug use has dropped 90%, according to the company’s website.

Despite the hue and cry over the steroid issue, “none of that has hurt the USA brand,” McCumber said.

Nor has it hurt the WWE’s ratings performance. In 2009 the live, two-hour series generated its best performance in eight years, averaging 5.4 million viewers for cable’s number-one rated network, according to Nielsen.

Combining scripted, PG-rated storylines with in-ring wrestling action, Raw has become one of cable’s most consistent and successful series that reaches across all demographics, according McCumber.

The series has become such a staple for USA that recently the network used the Raw platform to launch a new season of its scripted series, Psych. Series stars James Roday and Dulé Hill were guest stars on the Jan. 25 edition of Raw, while popular WWE star John Cena guest-starred in the crime dramedy show’s Jan. 27 season premiere.

“It’s a perfect cross-promotion that provides us with another opportunity to hit the core Psych audience which is younger, but also bring in new viewers to the franchise,” McCumber said.

Making an 'Impact’

For its part, Nashville-based TNA’s weekly TNA Impact! pinned down record ratings in 2009, averaging 1.3 million viewers an episode for Spike TV. The franchise recently signed former WWE star Hulk Hogan and took the bold step last month to face Monday Night Raw head to head with a special edition of Impact!. That episode didn’t pin Raw in the ratings, but it generated a series-high 2.2 million viewers.

Kay believes the in-ring action and bigger-than-life personalities from TNA and UFC have spurred ratings growth for the network. “We’re guys and we love fighting, but I think that these shows feature these bigger-than-life personalities are really why guys tune in,” Kay said.

While wrestling and mixed martial arts are fixtures on basic cable, boxing has had a greater presence on premium cable. With a lack of marquee fighters — particularly in its glamour heavyweight division — and the sport’s older-skewing fan base, advertisers have been reluctant to support the fight game.

But HBO proved last year that there’s still viewer interest in the sport. World Championship Boxing drew an average of 2.4 million viewers — including replays — for its eight live telecasts in 2009, a 20% increase over 2008. The network strategically focused its pay-per-view shows on mega-fights, providing such fighters as welterweight champion Shane Mosley and former lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez with more exposure on the pay service.

Boxing’s Comeback

“The benefit of that was that a number of fights that would have been on PPV in 2008 were live on HBO in 2009 and that was certainly a very healthy benefit to the sport,” said HBO’s Davis. “Anytime you have double-digit increases from one year to the next, that equates to a winning formula for us and that tells us that boxing is still in the forefront of the minds of the HBO subscriber.”

To attract younger viewers, HBO produced three segments of its popular documentary series 24/7. The program follows the lives of combatants in HBO PPV events from training camp right up to fight day. Combined, the Pacquiao-Hatton, Mayweather-Marquez and Pacquiao-Cotto 24/7 shows averaged 3.4 million viewers, a significant portion of which were men 18-49.

“Boxing is still attracting males 35 and older, but what 24/7 allowed us to do is connect boxing to a younger audience,” Davis said. “We found that the largest demographic for the series is males 18 to 49. That was one of the most encouraging aspects of the series and that bodes well for the future of the sport.”

On basic cable, Fox Sports Net climbs into the ring this year with a live, monthly Hispanic-flavored boxing series. It joins ESPN’s Friday Night Fights as the only English-language, live boxing series on basic cable. FSN’s sister Spanish-language service, Fox Sports en Español, will also carry three live fight cards a month, said Top Rank president Bob Arum.

“It’s important for boxing if we can make a success out of it,” Arum said. “If we can generate strong ratings, then more advertisers will want to get involved and then more networks will get in and the ball will start rolling again in the direction of boxing.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.