Ryan Pike

The Ultimate Fighting Championship celebrates Cinco de Mayo this weekend in grand fashion, presenting the third event on the FOX Network. The event, headlined by a lightweight battle between contenders Jim Miller and Nate Diaz, showcases the gradual learning curve that the UFC has faced when booking its free television events.

Depending on your business model, free television events can be fantastic for bringing new fans to your product. Heck, the UFC first made its grand leap forward based upon the exposure it gained from the Ultimate Fighter. The first Ultimate Finale event showcased everything great about the UFC – the main card featured a headline bout between stars Ken Shamrock and Rich Franklin, but also featured the finales of the two tournaments. As a result, the supporting fights were given the chance to make an impact and now, more than seven years later, the Forrest Griffin/Stephan Bonnar finale is the only fight most fans remember from that show.

Therein lies the challenge with booking free TV events, a challenge best explained through three factors. The UFC match-makers and execs have to mind (and include) three things: fights that are important, fights that could be entertaining, and fights they wouldn't make too much money on otherwise.

Important fights are simple to outline: grudge matches, title fights, title eliminator fights, and debuts (or returns) of high-profile fighters. Entertaining fights are a little bit trickier, as it's a bit difficult to tell how well two fighters will gel in the cage. That said, if a fighter has previously won bonuses for having good fights, that's a good bet. Same with fighters with a lot of finishes being matched up.

Finally, fights that UFC wouldn't make a lot money on otherwise means fights that, if added to a pay-per-view event, wouldn't move the dial all that much. Or, alternately, fights featuring moderate draws that need more exposure. For instance, is Brian Stann a pay-per-view draw? Somewhat, but probably not as a headliner or title challenger yet. But with more exposure on free shows and in exciting fights, he'll gradually mean more.

It's in this sense that this past year has seen the UFC seem to adapt better to their new FOX deal than they did under the Spike TV or Versus deals. The previous Spike and Versus shows seemed to oscillate between two extremes – stacked and barren. You either had a marquee main event or a fairly strong overall card, or you had a Fight with the Troops or Barry/Kongo event. Not to say that either of those fights were bad, but that there was nothing on them that made the casual fan shout “Holy moly, I gotta watch that!”

Under the FOX deal, the UFC seems to have learned their lesson. While starting off the partnership with a 64-second heavyweight title fight probably wasn't the best-case scenario, it exposed a huge audience to the product and allowed a quick entry-point to further viewing.  The second FOX show was arguably the ideal set-up; three decisions, but two of which that set up title fights and a third that boosted a prospect up the ladder. Subsequent Fuel and FX shows have featured strong main events from a “name-value” perspective, as well as entertaining fights on the undercard. While the recent viewership numbers probably aren't the best-case scenario for UFC or FOX, as long as the shows stay as good as they have been and the shows are better publicized, there's no reason why ratings shouldn't improve before too long.

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