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Mixed martial arts’ mainstream success with Fox, UFC deal contingent on rise of media-friendly fighters

Can a single TV network push a popular niche sport into mainstream glory?

That’s the question at hand as Fox unveils its megadeal showcasing the mixed martial arts league Ultimate Fighting Championship across several TV platforms over the next seven years, including four live Saturday night fights on Fox and a livelier version of “The Ultimate Fighter,” offering 26 weeks of action over two seasons on FX.

Of course, Fox Sports Media Group chairman David Hill downplayed the network’s possible role in turning UFC into a new mainstream sport, even while touting their deal as one of the biggest moments in Fox Sports history.

“It’s the ultimate democratic process,” Hill said during a press conference Thursday. “Television can’t make a sport. We can enhance it, we can grow it, but we can’t make it. The people have to speak.”

Perhaps. But there is little doubt the Fox is now ready to push to people to jump on the UFC bandwagon, unveiling its announcement with the kind of pomp and circumstance usually reserved for news about the Olympics or World Cup. (Small wonder; according to the Los Angeles Times, quoting unnamed executives, the new deal is worth $100-million per year.

Every heavyweight in the Fox Sports family was on hand Thursday for a press conference that was streamed live on video to the public and staged on a TV set. FX president John Landgraf, known for developing high-quality, male-centered shows like “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy,” even compared the rise of UFC to his own channel’s success – linking their acquisition of MMA fighting to mainstream sports broadcasts on rival channels such TNT and TBS.

For FX, UFC will essentially speed up the production process for its unscripted “Ultimate Fighter” competition, editing a week’s worth of action into an episode to be shown each Friday, culminating with a live fight featuring contestants chosen by viewers.

“That’s 32 weeks of live fights on FX,” crowed Landgraf, tallying up the bouts from two seasons of “Ultimate Fighter” and six other live fights scheduled during the deal. “(It will) revolutionize the network.”

The biggest reason for all this crowing is the TV industry’s most elusive prey: The young, male viewer.

In network TV, the only series in the top 30 to draw more male viewers than female – other than a few anomalies like NBC’s “The Office” and Fox’s “Family Guy” – is football. General entertainment cable channels such as TBS and TNT have found sports to be a magnet for young male viewers, who are the toughest contingent to get in front of a TV screen for long periods.

And UFC has been trying for years to position itself as the new blockbuster sport for young males on television. During Thursday’s press conference, Hill chuckled while remembering how he dismissed UFC president Dana White’s assertion a decade ago that MMA fighting would gain the same prominence for the Millenial generation that boxing had for baby boomers.

Even Fox’s press release on the deal touts the relative youth of MMA audiences, claiming their median age for UFC broadcasts on Spike TV is 36 compared to age 43 for the Super Bowl and 61 for horse racing’s 2010 Triple Crown.

Still, White’s boast seems premature. TV types dream of producing a new sport that can recapture the glory of boxing’s great past, when superstars like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard had the same glamour and notoriety as the biggest movie stars.

But both sports and media are very different animals in today’s world. Boxing hasn’t had a charismatic, attention-getting star since Mike Tyson’s heyday 20 years ago. And we all know how that ended; with rape charges and jail time for a fighter who seemed pushed into the limelight too quickly.

The sport’s addiction to pay-per-view paydays has kept the general public from getting to know new boxing stars, even as the wide diversity of media has given fans more options than ever. Even Hill acknowledged as much, noting Thursday that video games have helped make traditional boxing look too, well, traditional.

“When it’s possible to disembowel a (man) in the privacy of your own room, watching two guys (fight) with gloves on was very one-dimensional,” he said. “The (MMA) fighters have created something that is the ultimate 3-D experience.”

I think there is one component still missing from the Fox/UFC plan; something that will ultimately determine whether this becomes the blockbuster deal both entities hope it could be.

MMA needs a mainstream star.

In the same way Ali, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods became mainstream ambassadors of their sport – giving elderly grandmas who never watched a minute of their competitions an awareness of their brand – UFC and Fox need a champion whose exploits can put MMA on the mainstream media’s radar.

Expect that to be the focus on this new partnership in the weeks and months to come, aiding by its own version of “American Idol” – the popular “Ultimate Fighter” series. UFC will have to negotiate its own pay-per-view problems, providing compelling matches to Fox, while keeping enough big matches in the PPV area to justify those charges.

But provided these companies can mint compelling stars – and deal with getting MMA legalized in all the important states – Fox just might be the boost UFC needs to join the NFL and WWE in the pantheon of indelible mainstream sports acronyms.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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