Mixed martial arts has a tumultuous history on broadcast TV, from the Kimbo Slice EliteXC days and the Gus Johnson-narrated post-fight brawl at Strikeforce: Nashville on CBS to the UFC’s Fox debut with a heavyweight title fight and its subsequent less attractive cards. But one network that never had much of a relationship with MMA was ABC, under the same umbrella as ESPN, the UFC’s current TV partner. That changes on January 16th, more than 12 years after EliteXC’s CBS debut.
On Monday, ESPN announced that the Fight Night card, with a main event of Max Holloway vs Calvin Kattar, would be simulcast on ABC and ESPN+ at 3 PM ET. This marks the first time that a UFC event has aired on ABC, and the UFC’s first appearance on broadcast TV in more than two years, since its Fox deal expired. Of note, both the prelims and post-fight shows will only air on ESPN+.
Notably, this is the Saturday of the NFL’s Divisional round of playoffs. ABC and/or ESPN does not have a Divisional game, with the four games airing on Fox, CBS, and NBC, but one of the Saturday games has always started in the middle of the afternoon. Last year’s game between the Vikings and 49ers on Saturday started at 4:35 PM ET, which would be right in the heart of the UFC card on ABC.
Counterprogramming the NFL playoffs is a bold move, but with an afternoon start time, it’s easier for ABC to slot the fight card into the schedule without disrupting primetime programming. It also follows a pattern of more sports content on ABC, from the NFL to international soccer to MLB playoff games. I wouldn’t be surprised if, regardless of how this event does viewership-wise, we see more UFC events air on ABC this year. Just don’t expect the star-laden PPV events to be on broadcast TV. That’s a bridge too far.