From a publicity standpoint this season of the Ultimate Fighter has been a complete mess. After two years on the sidelines, the UFC brought superstar Conor McGregor back to TUF to try and bring some juice to a long faded centerpiece of Dana White’s brand.
While not a massive success from the jump, the program’s 294,000 opening night viewers (and .14 18-49 demographic share) were at least somewhat of step up from the last time the show appeared on network TV (capturing just 186,000 viewers back in 2018 on FS1). From that point on, however, ratings appeared to be in a free fall. By episode 3, TUF had just 222,000 viewers and a .07 share of the 18-49 demographic.
Conor McGregor brings a ratings boom to TUF?
Last week, however, something interesting happened, TUF captured 468,000 viewers. People who had been slowly tuning out of a show that had been running more or less unchanged for the last decade were tuning back in. Unfortunately, it seems most likely that the reasons behind the jump were anything other than positive. Two weeks ago McGregor was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a bathroom stall at game 4 of the NBA finals. Since then, he’s been nothing but front page news.
That likely exposes a hard truth about the Irishman’s current celebrity status at the moment, if he’s not fighting—be it in the cage, in the street, or in court—people aren’t watching. Fans didn’t show up to watch a stale, outdated reality TV show just because Conor McGregor was on it, but they did show up to watch celebrity trashfire Conor McGregor even when he’s just on some stale, outdated reality TV show.
TUF didn’t do McGregor any favors
Outside of the scandal rocking McGregor’s personal (and legal) world, it has to be wondered if this season of TUF isn’t doing McGregor’s reputation more harm than good. The major narrative surrounding his involvement in the show hasn’t been about highlighting his coaching skills or the camaraderie of his team, instead it’s been all about the expectations his participation have created for his fighting career.
If the ‘Notorious’ SBG talent signed up to coach against Michael Chandler, surely he also intends to fight against Chandler as well, right? It’s an obvious booking to make, and seems like it’d be a strong PPV seller. It would also require McGregor to pass a drug test of some kind at some point. Something that he still doesn’t seem prepared to do. The further the process drags on more it seems like all this potential promotion work to pit these men against each other has become a big waste of time. As of the moment, his waffling and delaying only looks more suspicious and less like the actions of a man serious about competing against the best.
The other point that seems to have seriously undercut McGregor here was the tweak the producers made to this season of the show. Their attempt to freshen things up by pitting former UFC talents against untested newcomers has been nothing short of an abysmal failure to create competitive fights. That’s also something of an own goal on McGregor’s part, given that he had the option of choosing which group of fighters he wanted to coach and chose the rookies both times around.
The combined result? Through four episodes Team McGregor is 0-4 with two first round knockout losses and two one-sided unanimous decisions. This week, former Ultimate Fighter season winner Brad Katona will face off against 12-3 former Atlas Fights title contender Carlos Vera. Katona went 2-2 in his brief UFC stint, beating Jay Cucciniello and Matthew Lopez, while losing decisions to Merab Dvalishvili and Hunter Azure. Since leaving the promotion he’s 4-0 under the Brave CF banner. There are no odds for the event, but it’s hard not to think Katona will be a very large favorite to take McGregor’s team one fight closer to a season-long shutout.
Despite the serious cloud of an ongoing sex assault investigation, unnecessary drama from USADA, and a team that can’t seem to win a fight to save their lives, there are still upsides here. In a world where all press is good press, McGregor is making a lot of headlines. Ratings are up and, if his fighters can actually get a few competitive results and carve out even one finals spot, the UFC still has plenty of options to figure out a McGregor/Chandler PPV.
As much as it might gall, the promotion always has the option to give McGregor a drug testing hall pass (at least on the 6-month availability side of things), and as long as people are talking about the man he can always sell a lot of PPVs. The second highest selling UFC PPV of his career was his last one. If he can get out of his own way for just a couple of months, it seems pretty likely a return to the Octagon would still be a major financial success.
TUF is already recorded and in the can as an entertainment product, there’s nothing Conor could do now to make the show ‘better’, that he hasn’t done already—and by the look of things he didn’t do much. But if he can actually start setting down real plans to fight again, he might be able to capture a lot of interest that’s still out there to see McGregor actually perform like an athlete and not just act like one.
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