Fox Sports on Thursday announced a seven-year deal with Ultimate Fighting Championship that brings mixed martial arts fights to the Fox broadcast network four times a year, and 32 live Friday night events on the company's FX cable channel.
Fox declined to disclose financial terms, but the Sports Business Daily reported the multi-year package was worth as much as $90 million.
The deal is significant because it elevates the sport of mixed martial arts to the television mainstream. Fox has become the home of big-ticket championship events: broadcasting baseball's World Series, football's Super Bowl and auto racing's Daytona 500.
"This is where I wanted to be, and this is the deal that I wanted," Dana White, UFC president, said during a morning news conference at a Fox Sports television studio in Los Angeles. "It took a long time to happen."
The two groups have been in talks for almost a decade. Fox Sports Chairman David Hill conceded that it took a few years for him to recognize the potency of mixed martial arts. He and others over the age of 50 grew up watching boxing, he said, adding that today's youth is more attuned to the "three-dimensional" nature of mixed martial arts.
In addition, during his tenure overseeing programming at DirecTV, which offered pay-per-view mixed martial arts, "We saw the widespread popularity of the sport," Hill said. "This group has taken a little niche sport and in 10 years they have made it to a mainstream sport.... The growth and potential of this is explosive."
UFC's television homes have been on Comcast Corp.'s Versus channel and Viacom Inc.'s Spike.
" 'The Ultimate Fighter' Season 14 in September will be our last," Spike said in a statement. "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."
The Fox deal provides Zuffa, owner of the UFC brand, with a platform on more networks -- and more prominence. The sport will make its prime-time debut on the Fox broadcast network Saturday, Nov. 12.
FX will carry Friday night fights and the retooled "The Ultimate Fighter" program beginning next year. Fox's niche sports Fuel channel and Spanish-language Fox Deportes also will host pre- and post-fight shows and other events.
Founded in 1993, Ultimate Fighting Championship has seen muscular growth since it was acquired by Zuffa in 2001. UFC's flirtation with Fox Sports dates to the summer of 2002 when Fox Sports Net carried the company's first non-pay-per-view event on basic cable television, pulling in a large audience.
For FX, the sport will help to lure more young male viewers to the channel, which has built its reputation as a leader in edgy programming with "The Shield," "Rescue Me" and the quirky fan-favorite comedy "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
"We can now stand toe-to-toe with anyone in our competitive set," John Landgraf, general manager of the FX Networks, said during the news conference. In the past, such rivals as USA Network and TNT have rounded out their offerings and boosted their ratings with sports.
"The UFC," Landgraf said, "is finally going to put us on a level playing field with our competitors."
-- Meg James
Photo of UFC's Junior Dos Santos (left) of Brazil and Shane Carwin of Colorado during a June British Columbia fight weigh-in. Credit: Darryl Dyck / Associated Press