It was a marriage made in the octagon.
Ultimate Fighting Championship, the runty competitor to boxing, wedded to Rogers Sportsnet, very much second banana to TSN in Canadian all-sport TV networks.
Both looking for a niche, an identity in the clotted universe of sports broadcasting. Both looking for way to capture the 18-to-34 male demographic - the honey pot for advertisers. Both needing a home run.
By design or by accident, the parties fell into each other's arms in 2005, when Sportsnet decided to embrace mixed martial arts, the red-headed stepchild of contact sports. It has been a fruitful marriage for both.
UFC is suddenly - some say inexplicably - the hottest commodity in sports properties among young males, after fighter Brock Lesnar's dominant performance in winning the UFC heavyweight title last weekend. Whatever the aesthetic of Lesnar's vicious win over Frank Mir (he gave rude a bad name) the result was everyone talking UFC.
The pay-per-view buys were expected to hit 750,000 for last Saturday's UFC 100 in Las Vegas (an estimated $35-million), while the live gate for the event was estimated at slightly more than $5-million (U.S.). Branded merchandise brings in more again.
As a result, UFC - which lost an estimated $43-million in its early days this decade - is now the hot media buy.
For Sportsnet and Spike TV, the U.S. locus of UFC, ratings have been robust.
Sportsnet (which shows fights on a delayed basis) has increased ratings 36 per cent over 2008 (64,000 viewers from 47,000). The finale of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV series was up 69 per cent from last year to 88,000.
On Spike TV, the finale of The Ultimate Fighter in June drew 663,000 viewers in males 18 to 34 - more than baseball on Fox (184,000) and golf's U.S. Open on NBC (384,000) combined.
It's not as though UFC is a favourite of the traditional sports media, with its long-standing bias toward boxing as the blood sport of choice. Typical of the media reaction came when Sportsnet's Mike Toth ripped into the sport while host of Prime Time Sports in May, 2007. Toth and the show's panelists portrayed the fighters as caged beasts and wondered aloud at the popularity of UFC and all mixed martial arts.
Research shows the success of UFC is no blue-collar phenomenon. Middle- and upper-middle-class demographics - the male children of helicopter parents - are the fuel in the engine of UFC president Dana White.
How do you explain its popularity with a generation that was supposedly raised to be more sensitive, less aggressive and better educated than any in history? Children of the new media are spending millions of their own (and their parents') disposable dollars on UFC PPVs, merchandise and, some, on a form of mixed martial arts as a recreation.
There are several explanations as to why children of Boomers - taught to talk, not fight - can't get enough of the gore and violence of UFC.
First, most of the young men have been hermetically sealed from such violence by schooling and parenting; watching UFC - like Fight Club - is almost fetishistic, a defiant push back against the politically correct world into which they've been thrust. For young men who typically have so little experience of real violence and physical cruelty, seeing an unconscious fighter take repeated blows to the head is seen more as cartoon than reality. There is a deficiency of empathy.
When Generation Next was young, this accounted for the raging success of World Wrestling Entertainment, the stylized theatre of mayhem, muscles and political incorrectness created by White's role model, Vince McMahon. White merely extended this formula to its logical extreme - substituting real blood and viciousness for McMahon's kabuki version - when he, along with two other men, purchased UFC in 2002.
UFC also gives this generation of young men its own sport, one they decidedly won't share with dad as they sit down to watch TV together. Like tattoos and rap music, it's a cultural talisman Boomers cannot/will not co-opt.
It would be foolhardy to bet against White. McMahon's circus was supposed to disappear years ago. Boxing was not going to survive political correctness. For now, it's clear that UFC speaks to a demographic that will not go away quietly.
Updating our story last Thursday on NHL TV broadcast rights: Fox's regional-rights packages do not expire in 2012, along with those of NBC and Versus.Report Typo/Error
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