The first UFC on Fox 1 event is largely being considered a success. While the main event ended early, it ended decisively. And the ratings seem to indicate this is an experiment that can go very far for all parties involved.
The initial Fox television broadcast also mostly got things right. UFC didn't miss a step with their presentation and Fox gave a genuine first effort in trying to deliver MMA to more mainstream audiences. But it wasn't perfect and there are clear improvements that can be made. Below are a list of 10 suggestions Fox and UFC should consider going forward to improve broadcasts:
1. Broadcast more than one fight. This is a no-brainer and something they already plan to fix. For Saturday's event, what was particularly bothersome was Clay Guida vs. Ben Henderson was expected to deliver. It's one thing for a fight to be exciting after the fact. It's quite another to have strong reason to believe the fight was going to be exciting (and extremely important for the lightweight title picture) before the two touch gloves. MMA fans knew that. UFC knew that. Fox had their doubts. If anything, though, Saturday was an important reminder MMA cards are often stacked for a reason. It's an inherently chaotic sport. Better to hedge your bets with a dual-fight broadcast.
2. Reduce Dana White's role. Let me be clear about this: there's little the UFC President said I actually disagreed with. Even with his controversial post-fight analysis where Cain Velasquez was criticized, his assessment seemed to be on the money. But that isn't the point. What would be preferable is to give the solemn duty of candid analysis to, well, an analyst. There's an inherent unseemliness and plain conflict of interest in giving White that role.
I'm not suggesting removing White altogether from the broadcast. Fans know him, they like him and he's great on camera. But at heart he's a promoter. Setting context is better suited for White than critical analysis especially when doing the latter directly undercuts the former.
3. Hire Randy Couture as analyst. I can think of no one more suited for on-air analysis. More than anyone else, Couture has the right combination of fight credentials, pop culture visibility and broadcasting ability. He's smooth with his delivery, informative with his assessments and well-liked by more than MMA hardcores. And unlike other active fighters who often run into problems when critiquing other contemporaries, Couture is retired. That also allows him to make sure he attends the four major fights a year as another training camp won't restrict his options.
4. Create shorter production segments. Nothing should be too hurried, but no one segment should be too long. With two fights on each broadcast going forward, no one element should be any longer than 8 minutes. Break things up. Feature different aspects to the coverage including statistics, tape breakdowns with active fighters, backstage interviews and more. And put the first fight on no more than 10 minutes after the beginning of the broadcast. Keep the train moving and collect viewers along the way.
5. Don't change the Fox Sports atmospherics. I greatly enjoyed the Fox Sports opening music theme with the wide shot of the Honda Center at the open of the broadcast. Then seeing Curt Menefee served as a welcome, familiar note. In other words: it felt like the right move to see UFC treatment no different than any other sport in Fox's portfolio. It also elevated the UFC broadcast by removing previous outdated and culturally-isolated subculture atmospherics.
6. Know your priorities. The Fox broadcast should be better than the Fuel broadcast and I'd say the two were competitive. Red carpet interviews were tacky and clumsy, but as I mentioned in this space the roundtable was superb. Moreover, Fox Sports analyst Jay Glazer eventually found his rhythm after a bit of a slow start. Alongside UFC lightweight Kenny Florian, whose skills as a broadcaster have improved dramatically, they offered an informative and intelligent back-and-forth. While I'm not sure UFC light heavyweight Stephan Bonnar is the right man for the job in terms of interviews back stage, it's an important component to the broadcast. Here's what I don't understand: why wasn't this on Fox? Yes, the Fuel broadcast had more time (two hours), didn't include a fight, and is built to appeal to more involved fans. But this isn't necessarily content only more involved fans can appreciate or benefit from. Keep things simple on Fox, yes, but not simple to the point where we're not allocating resources among Fox television platforms properly.
7. Feature more stats and facts. If the aim is attracting mainstream audiences and sports fans, speak to them in the language of sports as they understand it. In fact, if you really want to educate them on the sport, what better way than facts, figures and meaningful statistics? There's a learning curve yes, and you want to avoid heady, esoteric numbers only a handful of hardcores can appreciate. Story telling is important, but numbers also tell a story. Given sports fans are accustomed to enhancing their sporting knowledge through measured numbers, let's make sure MMA coverage continues that practice.
8. Have fighter roundtables. This is another facet of the production Fuel featured that could've been better used on Fox. Current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, former UFC lightweight champions Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin along with former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir offered salient analysis of the evening's main event with Fox analyst Jay Glazer moderating the panel. Jones, Griffin and Mir provided affable, insightful commentary. Liddell, who is notoriously dull and laconic on camera, provided helpful perspective by drawing on personal experience.
9. Keep Curt Menefee. This isn't change exactly, but as Fox and UFC begin to make adjustments to the broadcast format, this is one constant that should remain. His broadcast execution is flawless and poise seemed to keep White calm (or as calm as possible) in a nerve-wracking moment. He's also a known commodity to sports fans. Let's keep familiar faces with competent skills sets in place.
10. Continue to experiment. What makes Fox great is their innovation. They had a few missteps with the first effort, but it was mostly a success. And they shouldn't be deterred by what went wrong. I don't have any specific recommendations to offer beyond the above list, but I'd like to encourage to keep the same spirit of change, experiment and adaptation that has made much of their work in sports broadcasting a resounding success. Changing the way fans view MMA for the better is a laudable goal, but it won't come without trial and error. More, please.