Saturday, 27 December 2014

UFC Fight Night London: A pimetime slot is exactly what the UFC needs

Channel 5’s decision to show live coverage of UFC Fight Night London on Saturday is a brave roll of the dice, but it’s a necessary move to grow the profile of MMA

The broadcaster will screen the show, headlined by Croydon’s Jimi Manuwa against Stockholm’s Alexander Gustafsson, from 9-11pm in a landmark moment for the UFC – this is the promotion’s first show to air live on free-to-view television in the UK. It's an interesting proposition.

You only need to look at Channel 5's track record in combat sports, particularly with heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury, who drew 1,500,000 viewers for his war with Steve Cunningham in April 2013.

It was perhaps that exposure that got the Manchester slugger a meeting with David Haye before “The Hayemaker” twice pulled out due to injuries .

Meanwhile, it’s a proven theory that fight sports go hand-in-hand with a terrestrial, primetime Saturday audience. Remember the early 90s when ITV, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank became compulsive family viewing?

That kind of platform is important to promote MMA further, hopefully to the point where our world-class talent – the likes of Manuwa and London’s Brad Pickett (both on Saturday’s card) – can grace the back pages.

Garry Cook, UFC executive vice-president and EMEA managing director, told me this week: “I’ve got to give it to Channel 5, they came to us and said: “We think there’s a place for boxing or UFC on a Saturday night. Although it’s new territory for both of us, we’re going to work hard and make it work.

“It needs to be a partnership though: if Channel 5 gets great ratings, that’s a success for them. But if they also tell the fighters’ stories, give it some context and provide education, that’s a success for us too.”

Cook makes a good point about that golden Saturday slot. Original dramas dominate Saturday night’s terrestrial viewing, while ITV are sticking with The Jonathan Ross Show for now.

And with Sky Sports offering a La Liga game between lowly Granada and Villarreal as an alternative to the UFC, the core 18-34 audience may well be on the sofa cheering for Brit star Manuwa.

Still, with any business plan, there are always stumbling blocks. Is the wider general public ready for mixed martial arts?

Think back to England’s last UFC showcase in October – yes, it was a great event, but what might happen if Gustafsson-Manuwa ends as a freak no-contest like Ross Pearson-Melvin Guillard?

With a broader audience watching – many of whom may be first-time viewers - you would hope the evening avoids that kind of setback.

But Cook countered: “Having been around sport for 25 years, the thing I love is its unpredictability. That kind of thing provides both fear and excitement and MMA in particular is so unpredictable; in combat sports it can go either way and that’s what makes it great.

“With the Channel 5 deal we want to bring the energy and excitement from the event to the audience at home. Paul Dunthorne [Chief Operating Officer at Channel 5] and his team have been magnificent and they agree that it’s not just about staging the broadcasts; it’s about educating the general public about the sport.

“London’s always been a big market for us and we always feel it’s important to come back to the main cities, the big arenas... we want to keep that consistency and then the audience will grow. And with our Channel 5 link-up, lo and behold, hopefully we’ll have over a million viewers on Saturday night.”

By Alistair Hendrie. Originally posted on

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