On Wednesday, season number 20 of The Ultimate Fighter kicked off on Fox Sports 1. The show debuted with just one fight over the two-hour timeslot, though that fight was fantastic. We got plenty of background into the 16 fighters on the show this year, and the premiere was regarded pretty highly across the board.
It drew just 536,000 live viewers, the lowest total ever for a premiere (excluding the international TUF Nations season).
Naturally, this has led to questions about the show’s future from MMA fans and the media. Last season’s premiere drew 595,000 live viewers, and season 18 (the first on Fox Sports 1) drew 762,000 live viewers for the premiere.
But there’s something to remember when talking about those two prior seasons on Fox Sports 1 – both of the premieres had a lead-in of a live fight card. Season 18 had a lead-in card that drew 539,000 viewers. Season 19’s lead-in drew 641,000 live viewers. Even TUF Nations, which averaged only 214,000 viewers over the 13 episode season, had a lead-in card that averaged 629,000 viewers. The lead-in for the premiere this season? UFC Unleashed at 7, UFC Tonight at 8, and a UFC Roundtable at 9. Hooray for studio and recycled programming!
As of right now, we honestly don’t know where this season of The Ultimate Fighter will go. If the ratings continue to fall and make the prior seasons on Fox Sports 1 look great, we’ll have a problem. But if the ratings stay steady or increase as the show goes on, maybe the UFC is on to something here.The format of this season is vastly different from prior years, with no fights to get in the house and a seeding system that has resulted in the bracket for the season already being drawn up (and let’s be honest, people love brackets). Most of the focus has been on the fighters as opposed to the coaches, and maybe that focus will begin to pay off as the season continues and viewers get more and more attached to the competitors.
Another reason I don’t think that the UFC and Fox Sports 1 are concerned – the DVR factor. We’ve talked about this before in regards to Fox Sports 1. The network just doesn’t have much original programming worth DVRing. Almost all of their programming is live events or studio shows. People generally don’t DVR those types of shows. They *will* DVR original programming, which is the category that The Ultimate Fighter falls into. One hour (two hours of the premiere) of The Ultimate Fighter drawing 500,000+ viewers is a hell of a lot better than airing yet another studio show that will be lucky to break 100,000 viewers, even if the studio show is much cheaper to produce.
Barring a complete disaster, The Ultimate Fighter isn’t going anywhere, “disappointing” ratings or not. Just because the show isn’t reaching the amount of viewers it did during its peak doesn’t mean that it still isn’t a valuable show to both the UFC and Fox.