MMA Commentary

The Ultimate Fighter, Tampa Bay Rays, and the Tragic Loss of Fan Interest

Brock Lesnar

Opinion: TUF Facing Tough Road

If “The Ultimate Fighter” were a baseball team, the series would be the Tampa Bay Rays.

Regardless of the economy, sports organizations, such as Major League Baseball, continue to rake in revenue dollars, and the teams that make up those organizations continue, almost always, to grow in worth, or, at the minimum, maintain a strong value.

Just two years removed from the economic crisis that shook the financial foundations of the nation’s economy (and the finances of most Americans), the MLB saw a 2% rise in the average value of an MLB team, according to Forbes.

Two percent may not sound like much, but with an average team’s worth in 2010 pushing $491 million, it really is.

Now, in 2012, the average MLB team is worth a staggering $605 million.

Yes, $605 million. Let me put that in a different way.

The Houston Astros had the worst record in baseball in 2011, earning just 56 wins (out of 162 games, for those who don’t follow baseball at all).

The worst franchise in baseball in 2011 came in at a respectable $474 million in worth. In 2002, the team was worth just $337 million.

In 2012, the Astros were again the worst team in baseball with a record of 55-107, putting them a remarkable 43 games out of the playoffs.

While the NL Central’s worst may have been the poorest team in baseball in a lot of categories, they didn’t finish dead last in one category in particular.

No, even with a horrid record, the Astros did not have the lowest average attendance in Major League Baseball. That honor went to the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays were dead last in attendance, according to ESPN, with an average attendance of 19,255 per game, a far cry from the over 44,000 average the Philadelphia Phillies drew to top the league.

Furthermore, the organization is worth $323 million. Now, they are an expansion team, but that 2012 figure is less than what the Astros were worth a decade ago.

What makes these numbers significant, however, is that the poor Rays went 90-72 and were in the playoff hunt. That is a better record than the Detroit Tigers, who won the American League Central division with a record of 88-74, and better than the St. Louis Cardinals, who earned a National League wildcard spot with the same record.

All that means is if the Rays played in the National League, or the AL Central, they would have earned a playoff spot (I know, I’m playing devil’s advocate here).

But what’s the point in all this?

Simply, you can dress the Rays up any way you like, bring in talent like Evan Longoria, and put together a record well above .500, but that doesn’t mean the fans will care.

The UFC’s (former) hit reality show “The Ultimate Fighter” should be addressed in a similar manner.

Last week, president Dana White dropped the news to the Los Angeles Times that light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and arguably the most talked about fighter in 2012, Chael Sonnen, would be coaching opposite one another on the series’ 17th season.

And the response was almost unanimously negative as the pairing meant the two would, in the end, fight on a UFC pay-per-view (scheduled for 2013).

The outrage stemmed from several different sources. First, Sonnen has yet to earn a win since moving to the light heavyweight division in the UFC, making a title shot appear, at least on the surface, completely absurd. Second, Sonnen is one of the more controversial athletes in the sport, and fans respond to that negatively in many cases.

But the decision from White comes down to more than who deserves to fight whom, or what is fair in the fight game. This decision is based (almost solely) on the need for a ratings boost for the struggling reality show now that the UFC and FOX have a broadcasting deal.

A brief history of “The Ultimate Fighter” :

The show premiered on Spike TV back in January of 2005. Diehard fans and casual fans, alike, have watched (or at least heard of) the epic duel between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar in that season’s finale.

And the attention is well deserved. That fight almost single-handedly allowed the UFC to regain its footing and ultimately rise into the powerhouse of an organization it is now.

The show continued to be a huge draw for UFC fans, and the promotion continued putting out season after season, drawing good numbers. More importantly, talent such as Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, and Rashad Evans was discovered.

But no ratings quite compared to the tenth season, which featured the heavyweights.

Fueled by the feud between coaches Rashad Evans and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, along with a cast of giant athletes and web sensation Kimbo Slice, the ratings soared. The season premiere drew 4.1 million viewers, and the season’s lowest number of viewers was for episode 10, which drew 2.4 million.

The most-watched episode drew an incredible 5.3 million viewers. And yes, that was the episode featuring Kimbo Slice’s fight.

Now, the current season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” featuring an irrelevant feud between Roy Nelson and Shane Carwin, the opposing coaches, has done abysmal numbers. It is the second season to be featured on FX after “The Ultimate Fighter Live” fell flat on its face.

So far, the most-watched episode of the latest season drew 1.1 million viewers, making it the lone episode so far to crack the million viewer mark (and we’re six episodes in). The least-watched episode of the season drew 624,000 viewers.

Taking in the six figures thus far, the season has averaged just a hair over 850,000 viewers per episode.

Talk about a new standard.

Meanwhile, the previous season, which was the first and only season to feature live fights, did basically just as poorly, making “The Ultimate Fighter’s” start on FX a rough one, to say the very least.

Now, the UFC looks to the ultimate trash talker in Chael Sonnen, coupled with the ultimate talent in Jon Jones, to rescue a series in peril.

And the next season won’t be broadcast in the timeslot from hell, being Friday night.

Though the season will likely have a better night/timeslot, and though there is a curiously intriguing aspect to Jones and Sonnen coaching opposite one another, the series is not about to turn back time and draw anywhere close to stellar numbers.

Why?

For the same reason the Tampy Bay Rays just can’t seem to get anyone to pay attention to them; no one seems to care about “The Ultimate Fighter.”

Like the Rays, “The Ultimate Fighter” is not a bad product. Neither the baseball team, nor the reality series are guilty of putting forth something poor.

Just like Tampa Bay continues to build on a good team, finishing more than respectably in each of the past several years, Dana White and company have continued to find the best fighters to compete on their reality series.

It just comes down to the fact that no one seems interested.

Do a quick poll, or ask Twitter followers. Is the reality series relevant anymore? After all, the UFC roster is stocked with talent, both young and old. And season 16 of TUF hardly seems important in comparison to the early seasons when the UFC was still trying to build up talent.

Still, the series maintains some level of relevance. Fans always clamor for tournaments in mixed martial arts and, to some extent, “The Ultimate Fighter” provides that, though it does so without the popular fighters fans want to see in a tournament. And the series remains a strong tool for the promotion to not only find talent, but also display that new talent to its avid fans.

But to the casual fan (and even plenty of diehards out there), the series just doesn’t have the same luster it used to.

It’s ragged. It’s beat up. It’s out of style.

Now Sonnen and Jones are supposed to change all that? Don’t hold your breath.

The reason why comes down, again, to the fact that very few people care about the series. And the coaches really don’t help in making fans that interested in tuning in. Season 13 shows why.

Two seasons after “The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights,” the promotion decided on bringing two heavyweights into the house to coach opposite one another on the 13th season. Those coaches were, of course, Brock Lesnar and Junior dos Santos.

Lesnar, a superstar long before the thought of a UFC career crossed his mind, was (and perhaps still would be) the promotion’s biggest draw by far. He headlined UFC 100, which drew crazy-good numbers, and may very well have been the most-talked about fighter during this time.

Quite simply, Lesnar was a ratings juggernaut. I guess coaching on “The Ultimate Fighter” was an exception to the rule.

The season, which broadcast on Spike TV, never came close to two million viewers for a single episode, topping out at 1.5 million (for the premiere episode and episode five), though it never bottomed-out into the hundreds-of-thousands range either. Two episodes (seven and nine) drew just one million viewers, however.

Sure, this was over one year ago, and the series was still on Spike TV, but neither explain why the numbers were so low.

Was Kimbo Slice and the heavyweight cast a bigger draw than Lesnar? According to the average audience they were. But, in reality, the answer is “probably not.”

So why the dip in numbers? Especially when the prior season, featuring welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre and “bad boy” Josh Koscheck, earned 1.9 million viewers on a pair of occasions? Lesnar was a bigger draw than either at the time, no?

The issue comes down to identifying the trend. And the trend for “The Ultimate Fighter” is heading straight for the red (if it hasn’t reached it yet, that is).

The show is progressively sinking deeper and deeper, and if a guy like Lesnar can’t hit two million viewers per episode, how can Jones and Sonnen?

Now, the next season of the series may be the most entertaining and it may be the most dramatic, but that doesn’t mean people will switch over to FX to see what Sonnen or Jones are feuding about every week.

In fact, Sonnen and Jones, though big-name draws, will likely not be able to help the numbers rebound into the two millions, let alone the type of numbers season 10 experienced.

It’s not their fault, though, if the season tanks. Nor does the fault lie with the UFC and Dana White.

White and company simply needs hedge their bets and realize the show just isn’t what it used to be.

No, it doesn’t need to be canceled. No, it doesn’t need to go through significant changes. The expectations merely need to be lowered as far as ratings go, and the promotion must focus on what the show has always been about; finding the best mixed martial artists on the market.

“The Ultimate Fighter” is plagued by the same disease as the Tampa Bay Rays. People just don’t seem interested.

The sooner the UFC realizes that, the sooner they can get back to recognizing and finding talent, as opposed to focusing so much on who is (and who isn’t) tuning in.

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