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Ultimate Fighting Corrals Advertisers

Spike TV has found an unexpected ratings heavyweight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Once a vilified spectacle boasting of its lack of rules, UFC upped its sanctioning and is now the leading proponent of the interdisciplinary combat sport called Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

But old impressions die hard. And Spike has been combating a major hurdle with its three-year-old franchise: convincing advertisers the adrenaline-packed content is not too bloody to sell their products against.

The network has found a gentlemanly solution. A subset of its sales force is now devoted to making the league more palatable to those advertisers. A three-man sales group wines and dines the clients, shuttles them to live events in Las Vegas and Florida and holds special sessions with UFC athletes at gyms and training centers, all in the name of quelling their skittishness.

“We're consistently trying to [promote] the UFC as a good vehicle to get in front of a young male audience and we thought we had to make a concentrated effort on selling it,” says Jeff Lucas, executive VP of the entertainment cluster of MTV Networks brands, which includes Spike.

For a franchise that started out in the early 1990s with a few fights a year on pay-per-view, UFC has grown to be one of the biggest televised sports ever. In 2007, seven live UFC fights on Spike have averaged 869,000 men in the 18-34 demographic, 143% more than the ratings for the National Basketball Association playoffs on ESPN.

MMA, a mix of jiu-jitsu, karate, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling, was once considered so eye-gougingly bloody that John McCain famously termed it “human cockfighting” and waged a campaign to ban competition. Over the past several years, the sport has gained acceptance after a UFC-led charge to regulate it through injury-preventing rules.

Now Spike and UFC face strong-arm competition from upstart leagues going to similar lengths to lure advertisers.

It's only business

The sport is now mainstream enough to draw the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Cindy Crawford to contests. Recognizing its business potential, 30 states, the District of Columbia, and Connecticut's Mohegan Sun Casino have sanctioned MMA fighting—and networks such as Versus, Showtime and Fox Sports Net have caught on.

They'll have a tough time competing with Viacom-owned Spike and Ultimate Fighting Championship parent company Zuffa, however. The companies first partnered in June 2004 to develop The Ultimate Fighter, a reality series about UFC contestants. Now, in addition to big audiences for more than 20 annual live fights, some 93 million viewers total have watched the first five seasons of the reality series.

Spike's three-man UFC ad sales tag team has used those heady numbers to attract an additional 25 new advertisers in the past month, including video games, music services, beverages and fast food companies.

“When some of these advertisers go to the fights, the training center or the gym and they meet these fighters, they realize the guys are pretty cool and smart and there's an opportunity there,” says Brian J. Diamond, Spike's senior VP of sports and specials. “It's like anything in life; it's what your perceptions of it are until you get to see it. What I hear 99% of the time after advertisers see a fight is, 'Oh, I didn't think this was what I thought it was going to be.'”

Below the belt

Spike competitors are also having success acclimating advertisers to a sport that once regarded “groin stomping” as frowned upon but permitted. That includes World Extreme Cagefighting (the WEC) on Comcast-owned Versus, the Elite XC on Showtime and the International Fight League (the IFL) on News Corp.'s My Network TV and Fox Sports Net, among others.

The IFL has raised $5 million in ad sales and integrated sponsorships since starting its MyNetwork TV deal in March with only limited ads, and sold out inventory for a live fight on Nov. 3. By massaging relationships with sponsors, the league has brought on such new partners as Sandals Resorts, Vitamin Energy, Geico Insurance, Earthlink and Jaguar.

Versus has tried to drum up business for WEC (also owned by Zuffa) by taking media and sales clients to an open workout for the fighters. After WEC events this year gave the network its four most watched telecasts ever outside the Tour de France and NHL playoffs, it signed a multi-year extension deal to broadcast 35 additional WEC events.

“It's still an area that requires a lot more sell, but more adults 18-49 see MMA as their sensibility. If you're going after young men, you should be in the sport,” says Versus President Gavin Harvey.

Spike has taken advantage of its UFC ratings rush to build other shows on its schedule around the sport. In September, the network extended its deal with TNA Entertainment, with which it built the weekly series iMPACT! around Total Nonstop Action wrestling. It also scheduled the physical themed reality competition Pros vs. Joes and scripted drama The Kill Point after UFC saw success.

And it continues to pursue new advertisers. Under one new deal with Lionsgate, the movie studio will run the cable premiere of a 90-second sneak peak of its upcoming Sylvester Stallone John Rambo movie in the Ultimate Fighter finale Dec. 8 and in a live fight in January, two nights before the film's premiere. The studio will also promote the film on the UFC fighting mats and in custom spots and tune-ins.

“It took some time for us to warm to it,” says Larry Novenstern, executive VP, director of National Electronic Media at Optimedia, which has bought spots for several clients. “But just seeing the quantity of the viewing audience was enough.”