UFC, FOX Sports sign multi-year deal

First live event will take place Nov. 12 in Anaheim, Calif.

A move Dana White thinks could be the biggest play in Ultimate Fighting Championship history took place today when FOX and UFC officials announced a new seven-year, multi-media rights agreement for prime-time fights and UFC programming to be shown on the FOX cable network as well as its sister channels FX, FUEL TV, and FOX Deportes.

While EliteXC and Strikeforce have aired one-off events on CBS in the past, now the world’s largest fighting promotion can boast that it is sharing the national TV stage alongside the biggest events in sports as FOX broadcasts the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Daytona 500 — taking not only the UFC, but MMA as a whole, to the highest level of exposure for an 18-year-old sport that not very long ago was still regarded as “human cockfighting.”

“There’s been a lot of big milestones we’ve had over the last 10 years in building this company and growing this sport,” said White, the UFC’s President, who along with Station Casinos owners Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta III purchased the UFC in 2001. “But I have to be totally honest when I say this is the biggest. The UFC is finally where it belongs on the number one network in the country and aligned with the most prestigious sports properties in the world.

“I’ve always said that the UFC will be the biggest sport in the world and with this relationship it will become a reality.”

While financial terms of the deal were undisclosed Thursday (rumors suggest that the agreement could be worth as much as $90-100 million a year), the agreement promises to broadcast four “big time” shows on FOX each year with the first fights taking place Nov. 12 in Anaheim, Calif. UFC officials have yet to reveal any of the bouts for that card, which will go head-to-head with one of boxing’s biggest events of the year as Manny Pacquiao fights Juan Manuel Marquez at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Another six events, “UFC Fight Night” shows, will air each year on FX, as will a revamped version of The Ultimate Fighter — featuring weekly footage of cast members training and living in the UFC house building up to live Friday night fights. Fans will also play an integral part to the popular reality series as their online votes will decide which cast members fight each other.

TUF — which helped propel the UFC into the mainstream, especially within its key 18- to 34-year-old male demographic — will finish its run on Spike TV this fall before the show moves to FX in early 2012.

The Ultimate Fighter season 14 in September will be our last,” read a statement from Spike TV. “We are increasing our commitment to distinctive, original series that we own such as Auction Hunters and Bar Rescue, which are delivering on our goal to reach a broader audience. 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.”

Additional programming on multiple FOX networks launches in January 2012 and will include pre and post shows, countdown shows, UFC Unleashed, UFC Primetime, the UFC Knockout series, Best of Pride, weigh-in specials, and much more original content from the extensive Zuffa archives.

“UFC’s growth over the past decade is nothing short of phenomenal and it has become one of the marquee sports in this country,” said John Landgraf, President and General Manager of FX Networks, which is viewed in nearly 100 million homes and airs dramas such as Justified and Sons of Anarchy and comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The League and Archer which could successfully overlap with UFC’s core audience.

“There is a reason for its rising popularity. It features some of the greatest athletes in the world, and we believe it will be a terrific addition to our schedule and look forward to our relationship.”

When the UFC didn’t renew its contract with Spike earlier this year, rumors began swirling about which network the UFC might choose, or would they simply start their own channel. The Wall Street Journal reported in June that the UFC was looking to acquire a controlling interest in the NBC-owned G4 channel, but unnamed sources said that a deal with NBC broke down over the last few weeks.

“We looked at a number of different deals, different structures, different opportunities, one of which was the opportunity to joint venture or launch our own network,” Lorenzo Fertitta said. “At the end of the day, when we looked at everything that was on the table, it just felt that this license structure made a lot of sense with FOX.

“I think that a UFC channel would be very successful, but we sat down and kind of thought about it a little bit and said, ‘You know what we do best? We put on great fights, and we promote great fights. We’re not in the business of running a network.’ As far as the lifecycle of the company and where we’re at, it just made more sense to do this deal with FOX.”

UFC’S first brush with FOX Sports goes back to June 2002, when Fox Sports Net carried UFC’s first non-pay-per-view event on basic cable television, and delivered its largest audience to that date. Two weeks ago the network and the UFC inked a two-year deal for FOX Sports Latin American to broadcast 24 live events a year to 29 million Latin American households in 19 Spanish-speaking countries. That deal bumped up the UFC’s broadcasting ability to 132 countries worldwide, reaching 597 million homes in 21 different languages.

But FOX Sports Media Group chairman David Hill promises that those incredible numbers will continue to grow and Thursday’s partnership with the UFC “is just the beginning.”

“There’s one thing about sports and television. It’s the ultimate democratic process. Television can’t make a sport. We can enhance it. We can grow it, but we can’t make it,” Hill said. “The people have to speak. What Dana and Frank and Lorenzo have done, they’ve taken a little niche sport, MMA, and called it UFC. In 10 years, they have taken it to a mainstream sport. The key was recognizing what people wanted.”

“We first started talking to the UFC 10 years ago. Lorenzo said something to me then that I didn’t believe, but over the last 10 years, I have. He said, ‘What boxing was to your generation, UFC will be and is to the next upcoming generation.’ And I watched in amazement.”