TUF 20 Premieres to Poor Ratings — What Does It Say About MMA Today?

A new season of The Ultimate Fighter had its premiere episode on Wednesday.

In some ways, it was the same as any: two established fighters serve as coaches, we meet some new faces, learn some new stories, and watch a fight at the end of it all.

But, in other ways, it was very different. The format changed a little for season 20, with a new system of “seeding” the fighters. TUF 20 features  a brand new weight class for the UFC: the women’s 115 lb division. The stakes are higher than ever, too: for the first time in TUF history, we’ll see a UFC champion crowned at season’s end.

You might call this the most “relevant” season of TUF ever to hardcore fans, featuring more of the top fighters at its highlighted division than any other in history. The cast includes about half of the top ten ranked women’s 115 lb division — and simply put, no season can come close to boasting that.

TUF felt like a happening again: advertised heavily throughout American football broadcasts and elsewhere.

The premiere episode showed a lot of that promise fulfilled.

It ended with a really fine fight, too. Tecia Torres showed some of the crisp striking which made her an early favorite to win the show, but struggled with grappling from her unheralded opponent Randa Markos — and ultimately, lost a judges’ decision in extra time.

So, yeah — great stuff!

But then, the ratings came… and wow. They weren’t so great.

The Ultimate Fighter season 20 opener, per this report (and elsewhere), scored about only 536,000 viewers.

The number actually represents about 10% fewer viewers than the much less-hyped TUF Season 19 premiere.

What happened?

Sure, the show’s new home of Fox Sports 1 creates problems. It’s not a channel that is on everyone’s basic cable package, so viewership took a dip after TUF left Spike. About twice as many people watched the COPS rerun on SPIKE that night, for that matter. But they’ve been on FS1 for a few seasons now.

Some will blame the new weight division, or the fact that the season highlights women exclusively, unlike TUF 18 which included women and men. Or, that it wasn’t preceded by a live event.

Maybe there’s some truth to that. But, I think the problem isn’t anything new.

The real problem is something old. For all the promise of TUF 20, it’s still a season of TUF. The format got stale for most viewers a long time ago.

Hopefully the ratings turn around. (As noted at MMA Payout, Season 19’s ratings didn’t. They ended up averaging less than 500,000 viewers per episode.)

If they don’t, it’s not a reflection on interest in the division or on the quality of the fighters. Hopefully, the ladies will still get their day in the sun.

But maybe the worse news is, despite introducing a pretty strong product – the TUF 20 premiere just wasn’t quite the happening that we had hoped it would be. Even with a fresh outlook, an impressive lineup of talent, and advertising aplenty – viewers just aren’t tuning in like they once were. The UFC, and MMA in general, just doesn’t seem to be reaching fans like they used to.

That’s not just bad news for the UFC, or the women’s 115 lb division – it seems bad news for the whole sport.