Let's get what we know, to this point, out of the way first:
- Sports Business Daily reported today that the UFC and Fox have reached a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal to bring MMA to broadcast television. The deal would result in up to four events a year being broadcast on the main channel, with so-called "shoulder" programming pushed to Fox's cable stations.
- UFC president Dana White wouldn't confirm or deny the report.
- FOX is apparently holding a 1 p.m. press conference on Thursday for "one of the biggest announcements in Fox Sports history."
There's the facts. They seem to point in one direction: That the MMA and TV giants have reached an accord.
Do they point toward MMA eventually becoming, as White has openly dreamed, the biggest sport in the world?
And it doesn't matter.
The seven- or eight-year deal, worth up to $90 million per annum, means one thing for the UFC and the sport: stability. That's a gigantic chunk of change -- and a gigantic chunk of exposure -- for an awful long time. MMA is very much in its infancy; the initial core of fans who came in with the early seasons of "The Ultimate Fighter" are still around. Leagues and sports have risen before, only to crash when they couldn''t bridge the gap to a new generation of followers. A spot on broadcast television -- not as a freakshow or a one-off money grab, but a real, legitimate spot -- would go a long way toward the UFC solving that riddle.
Likewise, the sustained injection of cash can only help the promotion. Pay-per-view and gate revenues are, of course, dependent upon the sport's popularity. If the fans are there, they buy. But if they're not, they don't. No matter how rosy things look now, it's not a 100 percent guarantee the upswing will continue unabated.
Instead, the UFC has apparently done the smart thing, like an investor diversifying his portfolio. A long-term, solid revenue stream is just another arrow in the promotion's quiver. If revenues drop off, the Fox money will (it seems) be there as backup. But here's the beautiful part: The Fox exposure minimizes the risk revenue will drop off. If it's true, it's the best of both worlds.
Does that mean the UFC is going "mainstream?" That MMA is going to end up in the Olympics? That high schools and colleges are going to start MMA programs? (White personally told me the latter two last year.) Probably not. But who cares? Let's be realistic: Expecting the UFC to knock the NFL or MLB off their pedestals anytime soon is tilting at windmills. It's just not going to happen. But why should it matter? Sporting popularity is not a zero-sum game; MMA can grow of its own accord. Whether it becomes more "bigger" than another sport ultimately means very little.
In the long term, what really matters is smart, sustainable grown. Which leads to the short term: exciting cards, accessible to as many fans as possible.
If it's true, the reported deal with Fox would help both.