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By: Shawn Ennis, MMATorch Senior Columnist
Since the new season of The Ultimate Fighter Live started on FX, there has been much hand-wringing among those who closely follow the sport. The worry spans from things like the viability of the TUF franchise to the viability of the UFC itself with the FOX networks. The latter of the two worries is totally unfounded, as the UFC isn't even half a year into a major change of networks, and this while their old partner is still showing their archived content (sometimes in competition with their new content, if that tells you anything about whether everyone knows where to find the UFC these days). But let's talk about The Ultimate Fighter. Is it still a viable franchise? Are declining ratings of what to me is an unquestionably better season than we've seen in years an indicator that the interest just isn't there anymore?
There have already been several pundits who have played doctor with the show, trying to diagnose the problems with the UFC and FX's approach to this season. There are several plausible reasons for the low ratings that have already been discussed, including here at the Torch. Friday nights are a ratings wasteland. The network switch hurts the awareness among some fans (yes, it's true). The competitors aren't relevant. These are all valid, but they've been discussed. I don't want to go into that right now. What intrigues me is the product itself. That goes a little bit into the relevance of the competitors, but there's more to it. The question we've got to answer is, what is The Ultimate Fighter supposed to do for the UFC?
In the beginning, the answer was easy. It was a question of visibility. The owners of the UFC knew that the sport was great, but how do you publicize that when you've got no coverage on any network to market your stars, and your events all air on pay-per-view? In 2005, Zuffa came up with the answer: a reality show. There's no question that they found the right solution to their problem at that point. Season one happened, Bonnar-Griffin I happened, and the rest was history. But what about now? We're in the 14th season of TUF. Is the show really bringing more eyeballs to the UFC? There are countless non-pay-per-view MMA events and shows on TV anymore. From everything non-UFC that you can get on HDNet and MTV2 to events on Fuel and FX, to events on FOX, to archived footage on Spike and Fuel, is anyone's first MMA experience going to come from The Ultimate Fighter, a show that airs at 10:00pm on Friday nights? Doubtful. And if it does, do you want someone's first MMA experience to be a fight between virtual unknowns with no commentary and no crowd? Nope. So visibility, to me anyway, is no longer what the show is about.
One possible purpose of TUF is to hype a fight, especially a fight in which the participants aren't huge stars (such as this season with Urijah Faber and Dominic Cruz). It's a smart move to use any free TV time to hype a PPV fight, but if that were the main purpose of The Ultimate Fighter, that would be a lot of energy to put into things other than promoting a fight. So that one's out.
What about building the next star? I think this is probably what the UFC is looking for, but if that's the case they're going about it in a way that makes no sense at all. Let's allow history to be our guide here. In 2005, the first two seasons of TUF aired. The winners of those seasons were Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Rashad Evans, and Joe Stevenson. By the end of 2009, each of them had challenged for a title, and two had won (Griffin and Evans). That's a four-year timeline (three years for Stevenson and Evans). In the twelve seasons since, no other TUF winner has challenged for a title. That's not to disparage the franchise as a whole, as some of the winners have gone on to become fixtures in the UFC, such as Michael Bisping (season 3), Nate Diaz (season 5), and Roy Nelson (season 10), and others still have potential to pan out. But the problem is that with so many seasons of the show having passed, by the time any season's standouts make their way in the UFC, it's completely forgotten that they were on the show. Winning your season of The Ultimate Fighter isn't necessarily a harbinger of success, and it's never a sign of an immediate ascent to the top.
There's an argument to be made here that the show familiarizes fans with a guy who could be the next big star, and it entices that fan to watch that guy more closely. That's all well and good, but again, when you've got two seasons airing every year and three or four fighters of note coming out of each show, you just lose track. No one is watching the show and expecting the winner to be the next big thing. The winner of the show is just another TUF winner at this point, and that's a problem if the UFC wants the show to be a vehicle for building stars. They can only get so much mileage out of Griffin, Evans, Bisping and a couple of others coming out of the show. We've got to be getting more immediate results from the competitors on the show today.
If you want to use TUF to build the next star, you've got to have guys who are capable of challenging the top tier of fighters right now. It's fine to have a few up-and-comers in a cast, but what does it say about a season when a guy like Amir Sadollah, who had a professional record of 0-0 entering season seven, wins it all? It certainly doesn't say anything flattering. If you've got a cast of 16 fighters, there's got to be room for everyone – the favorites, the up-and-comers, the kind-of-mediocres, and the underdogs. If it's a cast of all underdogs, who cares who won the tournament? Let's take this season for example. You've got 16 lightweights. If the winner of the show comes out and fights Tim Means or Justin Salas on an undercard somewhere, who's going to care about that? But if he comes out and he's fighting Edson Barboza, and people are giving him a chance to win that fight? That means something. That's a tournament that people can get behind.
It's becoming obvious at this point that the UFC is just bringing the brightest prospects directly to the big show, while those who wouldn't necessarily get a shot otherwise are fighting on the show. Whether that's due to the TUF contracts not being all that great, or the lack of desire to live in a house full of like-minded dudes and be away from everyone and everything for two months, or something else, if TUF is going to be viable, you've got to have real prospects on the show. Let's take an example.
Jonathan Brookins, a featherweight, won season 12 of TUF at lightweight. Here's a list of fighters who debuted in the UFC in 2010, the year that season aired (some in the list were brought over from WEC, some from that TUF season, but then again, Brookins fought in both of those places as well):
Jacob Volkmann (had fought at WW before but debuted at LW in 2010)
Now tell me this: would you rather see a tournament with those eight names mixed in, or the one that we got in season 12 (ok, so a couple were in that season, but still)? To me, that's not even a question. And if the UFC wants to make it interesting, why not throw in a few guys who have already fought on the big show? Either guys who have fought in the UFC once or twice, or veterans trying to get back on track, a la season four – "The Comeback?" Who says the fighters have to be isolated? The house could still be in play, but give them access to the outside world. You could even still have the team concept going, but you wouldn't necessarily scare better prospects away with the idea of being isolated.
Now I'm just throwing things against the wall here. Dana White and company know what is actually stopping them from bringing in better fighters to The Ultimate Fighter. Why not just remove those barriers, whatever they may be? If you want to revitalize the show, a format change might not be the only answer – though admittedly I'm finding this season a lot more engaging than I have the past several. Another answer might be to change up the approach completely.
Follow me on Twitter - @shawnennis, or shoot me an email – ennistorch(at)gmail
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