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UFC: With Fox Sports vs. ESPN, where does UFC fit in?

Submitted by Ben Miller

On March 28, 2013, UFC and Fox Sports were married.

That wasn't the day that UFC announced that it was leaving Spike TV. It wasn't the day that Cain Velasquez fought Junior Dos Santos as the first UFC fight on national, broadcast television in the United States. It was the day that Fox Sports 1 was announced and for better or for worse -- mostly for worse -- the two have been married ever since.

Fox needed big sports properties to create Fox Sports 1.  UFC was not Fox's largest cable sports property (that would be college football), but UFC was essential. UFC was young and cool (not its peak of cool, but close enough) and singular. UFC fans would follow UFC wherever it went, or so it was assumed.  (The amazing audience for Chael Sonnen's fight on Fox Sports 1's first night was evidence of that.) UFC provided volume content -- Ultimate Fighter, live events, hype specials, fighter profiles -- which is extraordinarily valuable when launching a new television network.

That Fox Sports 1 is a major disappointment is not news. Anyone can view the ratings, anyone can look at FoxSports.com and see the gap in quality compared to ESPN.com, the online arm of ESPN, the industry leader that FS1 was attempting to compete with. Anyone who watched "Crowd Goes Wild" or "Fox Sports Live" -- FS1's version of ESPN's "SportsCenter" -- has probably felt compelled to cringe.

Those things, however, are out of UFC's control. Dana White cannot fire Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole, hosts of the late night version of Fox Sports Live. He cannot force FoxSports.com to bring in a babysitter for Pete Vlastelica, the ex-Yardbarker CEO who now oversees much of Fox's online presentation. Many entrenched entities will have to fall for FS1 and FoxSports.com to thrive, and most of those things aren't triggered by UFC.

What UFC can control, most likely, is how much it's featured on FS1 and FoxSports.com. White occasionally (and correctly) criticizes others for "stepping over dollars to pick up dimes".  The same principle applies here. UFC is heavily featured on both FS1 and FoxSports.com, but those are dimes. It's a lot of publicity on a little medium; the dollars are elsewhere. UFC can't leave Fox -- not, at least, until their television partnership expires in 2018 -- but they can pick up figurative dollars if FS1 and FoxSports.com get better. And for those two Fox Sports properties to get better, they probably need less UFC.

For Fox Sports 1 and FoxSports.com to get better, they need to be perceived as journalistic entities. That is the core reason that ESPN dominates American sports; they are perceived to be journalists. ESPN acts as a partner to sports producers, to be sure. But so does NBC, CBS and Fox, among others. In fact, ESPN is rarely regarded as the best producer of live sports. Their competitors routinely win awards for event production. What NBC and CBS lack, however, is sincere journalistic chops. Their cable sports arms -- NBCSN and CBS Sports Network, respectively -- are unconcerned with full coverage of the American sporting landscape. FS1 was supposed to be different. While NBC's and CBS's cable sports appendages are transparent vehicles for airing and promoting events, FS1 was touted as a viable alternative to the Worldwide Leader (a pet name for ESPN).

The balance between being a media outlet and an event producer is a delicate one, but too often FS1 eschews journalism. Journalism means focusing on the events that the audience cares about. ESPN is far from perfect in this endeavor. As I write this, the ESPN.com front page is essentially an advertisement for an early season baseball game that a relatively small audience will watch, but they are better than Fox Sports. FoxSports.com routinely promotes Fox sports properties ahead of events that draw far more interest. NASCAR races get front page placement ahead of the NBA Playoffs. College basketball headlines feature the Big East (a Fox Sports partner) instead of the far more popular Southeastern Conference (SEC) or Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).  And, yes, UFC often receives preferential treatment relative to their popularity on both FS1 and FoxSports.com.

Fox giving a little bit of preferential treatment towards UFC is expected. Close observance of FS1 and FoxSports.com, however, reveals that Fox and UFC take it too far. Time after time, UFC gets top line placement with Fox ahead of the NBA (a television property that Fox has no partnership with) and other more popular entities. Perhaps this is satisfying to UFC hardcores, but it is counterproductive to a network and a website that ultimately aim to compete with ESPN.

UFC should ask Fox to feature it less.

When UFC has a pay-per-view, put a front page article on FoxSports.com. On nights when Ultimate Fighter airs, give an eliminated fighter a couple of minutes on Fox Sports Live. Some amount of preference is understandable. Overall, however, UFC should be treated as a sport that is what UFC is: a niche entity.

Last week's ESPN coverage was instructive for the biggest event in sports: the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. ESPN had absolutely no partnership with the fight. Floyd Mayweather is never going to fight on ESPN and neither will Pacquiao. Yet, ESPN had numerous reporters in Las Vegas, going so far as to air SportsCenter from there throughout the week.

ESPN covers big events, no matter which media outlet holds the property. If ESPN executives believe that a competition of video gamers, poker players or female basketball players will serve an audience, then they will cover it. They even cover UFC, especially high-profile pay-per-views.

Fox Sports 1 should give some level of preference to UFC, just as ESPN does to the WNBA and the Little League World Series (LLWS). Those are two ESPN-exclusive properties that draw limited audiences. ESPN covers both with more intensity than they deserve, relative to their overall popularity. But ESPN doesn't push those two properties with wall-to-wall coverage when there are bigger events elsewhere. If Tim Tebow were named starting quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles on the day of the final game of the WNBA Finals, then the ladies would be dropped from the lead story.

If Justin Houston were to sign his Franchise tender on the day of the LLWS Championship game, then the kiddies would take a back seat on SportsCenter. This is how dominant the NFL is in the United States: A relatively anonymous player activating an obscure clause in a collective bargaining agreement would be the top story in American sports, as long as it's the NFL. On Fox Sports Live, that just doesn't happen.  If a UFC show is the lead-in, then UFC is the lead story, the same for NASCAR. That's a turn-off for sports fans.

We can smell the odious corporate synergy between Fox Sports and their properties. ESPN gives off the same stench on occasion, but they are usually forgiven for their expert coverage of non-ESPN sports properties.

There are at least three years left in the UFC-Fox relationship. At some point, a tight marriage may work again. UFC could become cool again. Fox Sports 1 and FoxSports.com could fix themselves and truly compete for sports fans' affection. For now, however, the marriage is poisonous. A full separation would be non-sensical, but UFC and Fox can certainly put a little bit of distance between themselves.

For now, at least, UFC and Fox Sports should just be friends.