LOS ANGELES -- The UFC has made it to network prime-time programming.
Mixed martial arts' dominant promotional company announced a landmark seven-year deal with Fox on Thursday, putting four UFC shows on the main network each year and an extensive array of programming on its cable networks. The UFC will become a prominent feature on FX, with live fights on most Friday nights and a revamped version of "The Ultimate Fighter," the UFC's popular reality show.
UFC president Dana White says the deal is the biggest step yet in MMA's transformation from a banned fringe sport into a mainstream entertainment property. The UFC already is wildly popular among young men, but Fox will put the sport in front of an enormous new audience.
"This is what I always wanted, what I always thought was the pinnacle for us," White said. "This partnership is going to take this sport to the next level. Those people that thought I was a lunatic, saying this was going to be the biggest sport in the world, this is the next step."
Fox will allow the UFC to control its own production, a longtime stumbling block in White's negotiations with network TV over the past several years. Although the UFC is still in control, White says he wants "to make a fresh start" in every aspect of UFC's programming, working with Fox to improve even its pay-per-view broadcasts.
Fox Sports Chairman David Hill said the network won't have trouble selling network advertising for a violent, high-testosterone sport that's still viewed with an arched eyebrow by much of the public and media.
"TV is all about the next big thing, and that's what we're here for," Hill said. "We would not have gone into this deal if we had not canvassed a large pool of advertisers ... and found they were behind it."
Hill also had no problem leaving the UFC in charge of its own broadcasts.
"I think their production is first-class, and I doubt there's anything we could bring," he said.
The UFC's first prime-time fights on Fox will air Nov. 12. White is still working out details of the show, which likely will be held at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
"The Ultimate Fighter" will move from Spike to FX next spring for its 15th edition. The show's competitive fights will air live on Friday nights, and its episodes will be filmed and released much faster than in its previous incarnation, which starts its 14th cycle on Spike this fall.
Most of the UFC programming currently airing on Versus also will move to FX, as will the behind-the-scenes reality shows leading up to major fights. Fuel, a lower-profile Fox cable channel, also will broadcast UFC programming.
Although the four Fox shows are the UFC's first regular spot on a broadcast network, the bulk of the UFC's programming will be on FX in its nearly 100 million homes. FX president John Landgraf has built a powerful lineup of critically acclaimed and highly-rated dramas and comedies over the past decade, but the network has spent years looking for sports programming to complement its scripted lineup, dabbling with NASCAR and college football in recent years.
"Weekends are so hard to program right now, but sports are one thing that always seems to work," said Chuck Saftler, FX's executive vice president. "I think it fits FX very well. There's an intelligence to the fighters. This isn't just dumbed-down punching. We're also able to keep our programming message simple now: You can see UFC fighting live on FX almost every Friday night."