Taking a Look Back
One of the most noteworthy happenings in MMA from a broadcasting standpoint this past year had its origins late last year.
Right before the Christmas holiday in 2020, Nolan King and John Morgan of USA Today’s MMA Junkie initially broke the news that fans of the sport had waited over two years, at that point, to hear.
UFC Joins ABC Schedule
On December 22, 2020, King and Morgan reported that the initial UFC Fight Night of 2021 would have its main card aired on broadcast television, specifically ABC, on January 16, 2021.
Its main card would air at 3 pm ET on ABC, with undercard action streamed at noon ET on ESPN+ that day.
At the time, the card would become the first UFC event to air on broadcast television since December of 2018, when the last FOX UFC Fight Night aired live from Milwaukee, where Al Iaquinta bested Kevin Lee via unanimous decision.
Following that card, the UFC’s television and streaming media rights transferred from FOX Sports to ESPN, with a number of the previously-televised Fight Night cards moved to ESPN+ and some aired on the main ESPN channel.
This fight was a dominant performance for Holloway, who set an all-time UFC record for most strikes attempted, winning the contest via unanimous decision after 25 minutes.
Trouble Brews in the Nielsen Ratings
Although UFC on ABC 1 was a banner day for Max Holloway in the afternoon’s headlining bout, the same could not be said for ABC in the Nielsen ratings on the third Saturday afternoon of 2021.
Figures from the January 16 telecast indicate that UFC on ABC 1 only was viewed by 1.22 million people in the key demographic of adults aged 18-to-49 in the Nielsens, accounting for a .72 rating share on the afternoon. However, this event was the second-most-watched Fight Night card on television since UFC on ESPN 1 on February 17, 2019, from Phoenix, AZ, a main card that drew 1.46 million viewers on the cable channel, with a peak viewership of 1.67 million viewers.
As previously mentioned, that afternoon’s undercard was exclusive to ESPN+, and thus, no ratings figures exist for the prelims from January 16, 2021.
At 4:30 pm ET that day, on the UFC’s former television partner, the first NFC Divisional Playoff between the Green Bay Packers and the Los Angeles Rams kicked off to begin the second round of the 2020 NFL Playoffs.
UFC Gets Sacked By Football
That afternoon’s playoff game from storied Lambeau Field turned out to be the most-watched television program of the day, giving FOX Sports 26 million viewers that Saturday in a game won by the top-seeded Packers, 32-18.
Two months later, UFC on ABC 2 (a.k.a., UFC Vegas 23) was announced as airing on The Alphabet Network on the afternoon of April 10, 2021.
Like the UFC’s freshman appearance on ABC, UFC on ABC 2’s main card would air at 3 pm ET that afternoon. Still, unlike UFC on ABC 1, the prelims for this card would air on cable, beginning with a single prelim on ESPN2 at 11:30 am ET, while all remaining undercard bouts would be shown at noon ET on the main ESPN channel.
THE FOLLOWING WEEK, an ESPN press release, indicated that UFC on ABC 1 peaked between 5:45 pm ET and 6 pm ET on January 16, registering 1.6 million viewers during that timeframe.
Second Verse, Same As The First
Unfortunately for the UFC, the April 10 Fight Night last year on ABC saw its main card go up against another annual marquee event on the sports calendar.
This time around, the UFC’s chief opposition on TV for the afternoon came in the form of third-round coverage of The Masters on rival CBS– and not even a stoppage in play at Augusta National due to a rainstorm could entice viewers to switch away from a tradition unlike any other and switch to the Octagon.
In fact, the ratings for UFC on ABC 2 only worsened when compared to the promotion’s freshman appearance on the network.
According to Nielsen statistics, UFC on ABC 2’s main card only was viewed by 859,000 viewers that second Saturday afternoon last April, with 377,000 viewers tuning in for the event’s ESPN undercard between noon and 3 pm ET that day.
It’s been almost nine months since that second ABC UFC Fight Night, and the network still hasn’t aired a card from the MMA leader.
One big question remains here:
What Can Be Done To Arrest ABC’s UFC Ratings Problem?
The answer here is a simple one:
ABC can correct its UFC ratings issue by giving UFC Fight Nights a better timeslot.
This is something that’s easier said than done, however.
ABC’s Saturday Evening Slate Pretty Much Spoken For Throughout Much of the Year
A fundamental problem with ABC’s Saturday night lineup as it relates to any potential inclusion of a UFC Fight Night card is that the schedule for that evening is spoken for throughout much of the calendar this, next, and every year.
For starters, Saturday nights between Labor Day weekend and the first weekend of December are out of the question for an ABC UFC Fight Night as ESPN on ABC airs its longstanding Saturday Night Football package, showcasing America’s top college football programs, culminating in the broadcast of a conference championship game.
To that extent, the Saturday night directly before the Christmas holiday is also occupied by the gridiron on ABC every year, with three bowl games usually airing throughout that afternoon and evening.
In the winter and early spring, Saturday nights are usually occupied on ABC by its NBA Saturday Primetime package, with tip-off time from the arena coming at just past 8:30 pm ET on game nights.
NBA Saturday Primetime takes obvious weeks off on the Saturday night of NBA All-Star Weekend, during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and one Saturday during the Easter/Passover season when ABC presents its annual showing of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 cinematic classic The Ten Commandments– although its 2015 airing was shown on the Easter holiday itself.
Thus, with those weeks already spoken for, that’s roughly half of the Saturdays every year occupied by other programming, with the rest of the year seeing the Saturday lineup feature a steady diet of reruns, which is par for the course on broadcast networks.
ABC Should Explore Summer Saturdays For UFC
As of now, the UFC is slated to hold a Fight Night card on February 19, the same evening as NBA All-Star Saturday Night in Cleveland– and this card is currently slated to stream over ESPN+.
It’s best if ABC stays away from that night for the UFC, as it would be going up against tape-delayed coverage of this year’s Winter Olympics on rival NBC, and it would be another disaster in the ratings.
Rather, the best opportunity for the UFC to air a card on ABC would be any Saturday night in the summer.
I thought about, it’s perfect– as other than reality shows and the occasional live broadcast of a baseball game or a boxing event on FOX, there’s not much in the way of original programming coming on the air that time of the year– but here’s one word of caution;
All this can be well and good, but unless ABC can give UFC events a decent time slot, preferably in primetime, all this will be all for naught.
The UFC’s most recent main event on ABC was a middleweight bout won by Marvin Vettori over Kevin Holland, but unless and until a favorable time slot is secured, it could be the UFC’s last main event on ABC.
Only time will tell.
Featured Image Credits To Embed from Getty Images