UFC, Fox agree to seven-year deal

Updated: August 18, 2011, 7:10 PM ET
By Josh Gross | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Ultimate Fighting Championship and FOX Sports Media Group announced a seven-year multi-media rights agreement Thursday that will position mixed martial arts' leading organization on network television for the first time.

The Sports Business Daily Journal reported the bidding reached an average of $100 million a year.

The agreement delivers four live UFC events a year in prime time or late night to the FOX broadcast network. A card scheduled for Nov. 12 in Anaheim, Calif., will kick off the partnership.

Additional programming on FX, Fuel TV and Fox Sports Net launches in January. FX will host 32 live fight events a year on Friday nights, including six UFC cards and a complete revamp of the promotion's instrumental reality program "The Ultimate Fighter," which finishes its run on Spike TV with Season 14 starting in September.

FOX chairman David Hill declined to discuss terms of the deal, which he labeled "historic" due to UFC's ability to attract male viewers aged 18-34.

"Without that 18-34 demo you are really a hostage to the future fortunes of the sport because it's that demo that grows the sport," Hill explained. "They're going to grow with it. They'll teach their kids what the sport is about. When you look at a sport and look at the potential growth, that is the key demo. When you look at the figures that UFC is pulling, it's huge. In terms of what this is and what this is going to do and what we'll do jointly, that's what the exciting future is."

Despite expressing reservations about airing mixed martial arts on the broadcast network, Hill's perspective shifted as he became familiar with MMA through reality program.

"[UFC chairman and CEO] Lorenzo [Fertitta] said something to me then that I didn't believe, but over the last 10 years I have," Hill said. "He said what boxing is to your generation, UFC will be, and is to the next upcoming generation."

FOX's relationship with the UFC began nine years ago, when FOX Sports Net aired UFC 37.5, the first live mixed martial arts event on television.

"It actually pulled tremendous ratings but as an organization FOX just wasn't ready yet to commit to a deal," Fertitta said . "Back then it was still very unknown what the UFC was, what it could produce, what could happen. There was still some fear in the eyes of television executives. We proved our way on another network and when the rights came up FOX wanted to be in the game."

With this arrangement, FOX and UFC are integrated across multiple platforms, which UFC president Dana White said has been his goal since 2001.

Emphasized heavily during the hour-long news conference was the dramatic changes to "TUF," which will serve as a weekly live fight series on FX during 12-week production schedules.

"I think that this is ground-breaking television," White said. "No one has ever done anything like this, where you've taken a 'Big Brother' and 'American Idol' and put a live sporting event attached to it. There's a lot of challenges to this thing. It's a work in progress and it's going to be interesting but it's [expletive] relevant. It's destination television."

Negotiations also rendered an agreement that allows UFC to retain full production control over the look and feel of the live event broadcasts, which was a significant hurdle during negotiations with other networks.

Donning a FOX Sports T-shirt during Thursday's news conference at the network's L.A.-based studios, White wouldn't concede his promotion was mainstream -- even with UFC's affiliation alongside FOX properties such as the National Football League, Major League Baseball and NASCAR. Though, he allowed for the notion that UFC was "on par with all the other sports now."

FOX Sports Media Group president & Co-COO Eric Shanks and FX Networks president and general manager John Landgraf joined Hill, Fertitta, and White in announcing the deal.

Also part of the ceremony were UFC champions Georges St. Pierre and Frankie Edgar, light heavyweight contender Rashad Evans, and retired star Chuck Liddell.

"I think we'll be considered a mainstream athlete, just like the NFL, NBA, MLB," Edgar said. "To be on that platform, we're not second class anymore."

Edgar, St. Pierre and Evans said while they feel well taken care of by Zuffa LLC -- which purchased the UFC from Semaphore Entertainment Group for $2 million in 2001 and has grown it into a billion dollar company -- their hope is fighter pay will increase alongside UFC revenues.

"This should be a great day for them," Fertitta said of the fighters. "As the UFC goes, the fighters' pay goes. We've seen that when we finally turned the corner in 2005 -- since we bought the company fighter pay has gone up every year -- fighter pay has grown actually at a faster rate than revenue at the UFC, so as the UFC continues to grow with this platform they're going to reap the benefits."

"I always talk about monumental moments we've had over the last years," White said. "If you add them all up and put them together, they don't equal this."

Josh Gross covers mixed martial arts for ESPN.com.