If anyone had any remaining doubts that the broadcast TV networks are seriously worried about their declining audiences, they simply have to turn on CBS this Saturday at 9 p.m. That night the onetime Tiffany Network will turn over its airwaves to a bald, bearded former strip-club bouncer, whose ability to make people bleed has made him a media superstar, currently gracing the cover of ESPN The Magazine.
On the night where Mary Tyler Moore once ruled, CBS is now banking on Kevin Ferguson, a mixed martial arts fighter who goes by the stage name of Kimbo Slice, to draw younger viewers, especially men ages 18 to 34. But in giving such a prime-time spot to mixed martial arts (MMA), the fast-growing, full-combat sport that combines elements of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, jujitsu and other disciplines, the network is taking a calculated gamble.
Plenty of people are ticked that these violent, bloody bouts will air on free TV. Even CBS executive chairman Sumner Redstone has said that while the move makes business sense, he doesn't personally like the sport and thinks airing it is not "socially responsible" (but, he says, the network's president and CEO Les Moonves calls the shots). "Sure, people have asked 'are you crazy?' says Kelly Kahl, the network's scheduling guru. "And internally, some people are nervous. But we're juiced for this. CBS may skew older than the other networks, but it doesn't always have to be that way. MMA is something worth betting on."
While the move is a risk for CBS, it's major milestone for MMA, whose growth has been one of the decade's most stunning sports business success stories. For the first time a live MMA fight will be broadcast on one of the big four networks, an extraordinary feat for a sport that, just 10 or so years ago, was roundly derided as "human cockfighting." At first, the caged bouts were fought in the shadows, since the sport was banned in almost every state (it is now sanctioned in 33). But MMA now draws strong ratings on the cable channel Spike TV, and is a money-maker on pay-per-view; in 2007, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, MMA's dominant promoter, secured over $200 million in pay-per-view revenues, up from some $40 million in 2005. Still, scoring a prime-time network audience will expose the sport to a whole new universe of potential fans, and scrutiny. "This is hugely important for the sport," says Doug DeLuca, chairman of ProElite Inc., the company that is staging the CBS bouts. "MMA has done a great job reaching a hard-core, niche audience. Now, it's time to take it to the next level. All eyes will be on us."
Well maybe not all eyes. Saturday night prime-time TV, after all, has for years been a relative dead zone full of reruns, so DeLuca shouldn't expect knockout ratings, at least not right away. But there's no doubt that Kimbo Slice will draw a crowd. Once a promising Miami high school football player, Kimbo, now 34, flunked out of college and for a time lived in his car. He worked odd jobs strip-club bouncer, porn company bodyguard until he started street fighting about seven years ago for money in Miami backyards. "It kept me away from dealing drugs, and breaking into people's houses," Kimbo says. "All that thug s---."
Videos of these brutal, bare-knuckled bouts (there goes Kimbo left-hooking some guy in the face, there's a Kimbo victim lying dazed and bloodied on the ground) drew over 10 million hits on YouTube. ProElite signed him up, and he has dominated his first three MMA fights. The 250-pound ball of fury might be the first Internet-generated athlete to reach mainstream superstardom. "I never thought it was going to blow up like this," he says.
Even with Slice's compelling (dare we say inspirational) life story, MMA won't be a simple sell for CBS. The network needs to balance the expectations of rabid fans with those of new casual viewers, who will have to be spoon-fed MMA 101. "The challenge is that we have to serve two audiences," says Kahl. "We don't want to talk down to the hard-core fans, but we also can't alienate first-time viewers." Also, the network isn't exactly offering the sport prime real estate on the schedule, though CBS insists this is the best way to ease novel programming into the mainstream. "Because it's new, Saturday nights is a way for us to dip our toe in water," says Kahl. "Saturday night fights just felt right. And the whole idea of trying to revitalize the night is appealing to us."
The biggest potential challenge is probably also its biggest appeal the level of violence itself. True, MMA is no longer an anything-goes spectacle. Rules like weight classes and timed rounds have made it a much safer sport. But unlike pro wrestling, the violence is real, and unpredictable. "The sport is brutal," says James "The Colossus" Thompson, a British fighter who will take on Kimbo Slice this Saturday. "You can't sugarcoat it. I will try to hurt Kimbo." Kimbo says his mind-set in the ring is to "seek, kill and destroy." Sanctioned MMA fights have resulted in one death in the U.S.; in 1998, another American died after being knocked out during an unregulated fight in the Ukraine.
What's more, by exposing MMA to kids who are channel surfing, the network, and advertisers like Burger King and Miller, are risking a backlash. "Anyone who thinks CBS will not come out of this with some kind of black eye is fooling themselves," says Marc Ganis, president of SportCorp, a consulting firm. "Just wait for the first news report about two eight-year-olds that went after each other because of something they watched on CBS. It's going to happen." Kahl scoffs at such fears. "I find that statements like this come from ignorance, from a snapshot of what the sport was 10 years ago," he says. "Yes, it's violent. But so is pro football and boxing. There are plenty of violent sports out there. These guys aren't walking out of a bar into the cage. They're walking out a gym into a cage. They are world-class athletes."
The watchdog groups are already gearing up. "I hope parents use good judgment and don't let their kids watch it," says Melissa Henson, communications director for the Parents Television Council. "It's not appropriate for children." These MMA critics get Kimbo's blood boiling. "I would rather have my son watch MMA and learn to defend himself from a bully," he says, "than have him watch the hunting channel and see some guy blow a deer's head off."
Fortunately, Slice can channel his anger for the match. Thompson, his main event opponent, is talking plenty of trash, and looking to crush Kimbo's legend. "Obviously, Kimbo hasn't been tested," says Thompson. "No one, not the best MMA fighter in the world, will be able to live up to that hype." Thompson promises to go on the offensive, but Kimbo brushes the tough talk aside. "If he comes with aggression, that's like gasoline igniting a fire," Kimbo says.
Like many pro athletes, MMA fighters like to think of themselves as performers at heart, as skilled at marketing as they are at their athletic moves. "Watch the Colossus conquer Kimbo," Thompson says. "It's going to be a great night for whole family." Then again, if too many families watch the sport, CBS could find itself the one getting beaten up.