UFC, FOX continue to grow

The one-year anniversary of the UFC’s seven-year, $700 million television deal with FOX brings an exciting prospect for the near future.

How about a UFC on FOX fight in the New York City area on Super Bowl weekend 2014 — the same weekend FOX will televise Super Bowl XLVIII from MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.?

“The short answer is, we would love to,” Eric Shanks, co-president and COO of FOX Sports Media Group, said on a conference call Tuesday to promote next weekend’s “UFC on FOX 5: Henderson vs. Diaz” event. “We think that that Super Bowl week in New York is going to be unlike anything else. We’re going to own that city. We’re going to own that week of sports television. There’s nothing more we would want than a big fight that week.”

It’s a mouth-drooling prospect for mixed-martial arts fans, for the world’s fastest-growing sport to ride the Super Bowl’s coattails toward an even larger audience.

“We knew that this relationship is going to grow and get bigger every year,” Shanks said. “The first year was really to get the mainstream advertising base behind it and also to promote the UFC with the likes of the NFL and Major League Baseball and college football.”

The national broadcast television deal, one of the signature achievements of UFC president Dana White’s 13-year tenure with the organization, has helped mark the sport’s rapid rise from the underground to the mainstream. It was less than 20 years ago when the first UFC fight, which was intended as a one-off exhibition to determine which fighting style is the most formidable, attracted a crowd of less than 3,000 to McNichols Sports Arena in Denver.

Eighteen years later, with the UFC having become a multi-billion-dollar company, the UFC made its FOX debut. The November 2011 fight, which saw Junior dos Santos take the heavyweight belt from Cain Velasquez with a 64-second knockout, drew 5.7 million viewers. The ratings for the three FOX fights in 2012 have drawn between 2.4 million and 4.7 million viewers per fight.

But a Super Bowl weekend fight in 2014, a prospect about which Shanks said he has spoken to White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, would be a coup.

“These are guys I want to be with forever,” White said on Tuesday’s conference call. “At the end of the day, we’re a pay-per-view company. You showcase these guys on free television, it helps build the sport and it helps build these fighters.”

The main card Dec. 8 might just be the best card yet that the UFC has televised on free television since its first FOX show a year ago. It will feature four fights and plenty of buzz.

The main event, which is the second title fight to be televised on FOX, features 29-year-old lightweight champ Benson Henderson, who was raised in Seattle, against fiery California native Nate Diaz.

The co-main event features up-and-coming Swede Alexander Gustafsson against former light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.

And then you have the legend.

UFC future Hall of Famer BJ Penn, who hasn’t fought in more than a year, is making his return against 23-year-old welterweight Rory MacDonald, who might be the most promising young fighter in the UFC. An added storyline: MacDonald trains with UFC legend Georges St-Pierre. St-Pierre beat Penn twice, but the most recent win in 2009 was swirled in controversy after Penn’s team protested the fight, saying St-Pierre illegally applied Vaseline to his back.

The two fighters last month engaged in a few early slugs below the belt on Twitter. After MacDonald tweaked Penn for being out of shape — saying Penn is “knocking back quarter-pounders” — Penn fired back by intimating MacDonald was using performance-enhancing drugs. “Really pimple boy?,” Penn tweeted. “I won’t even (rear naked choke) you… afraid of all the pimples on your back. #GROSS.”

On Tuesday’s conference call, Penn demurred from a question on his prior intimations about MacDonald cheating.

“I’m not going to sit in here and get into that with everybody right now,” Penn said. “I’m sure there are people in all sports that bend the rules, but I’m not going to sit here and point the finger."

The two fighters agreed to random drug testing before the FOX fight by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association to prove they’re both clean.

All the action goes down Saturday, Dec. 8th. UFC on FOX: Henderson vs. Diaz kicks off live from Seattle at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT with welterweights Mike Swick and Matt Brown. Prior to that a nearly equally packed undercard can be found on FX Networks beginning at 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT.  The four featured fights begin live at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com