The latest series of The Ultimate Fighter, dubbed Nations, is in full swing. Pitting the mixed martial artists of Australia and Canada against one another, it’s perhaps no surprise that didgeridoos and moose heads are already being embraced as clichéd catalysts in the growing cultural tension between the two teams.
The benefits of The Ultimate Fighter as a show format for the UFC are well-established. The reality-show exposure increases name value and develops the familiarity of new fights brought into the UFC for its audience. The Ultimate Fighter platform played a crucial role in raising the UFC’s public profile, launching some of the most recognized fighters in the promotion and bringing the UFC back from the brink of financial ruin. It is even widely credited with catapulting the brand into the mainstream eye.
The current series is the 23rd installment of The Ultimate Fighter. After several years on television, it was almost inevitable that criticisms of stagnancy and repetition would surface. That’s when the premise behind TUF Nations was conceived.
As a concept, TUF Nations pits different nationalities against each other, breathing new life into the series. The idea was first explored in The Ultimate Fighter’s ninth season, when Michael Bisping led a group of Brits against an American contingent fronted by U.S. Olympian Dan Henderson. The season was remembered for its cultural clashes, an explosive ending at UFC 100 and a team spirit unparalleled by any previous TUF season.
By 2012, the international format returned as a regular fixture and is now a focal point of both the UFC’s broadcasting and its marketing strategy. By looking at the TUF Nations show and its unique contributions to the UFC product, we can understand the diverse value it brings to the promotion’s growth into a world-renowned brand.
The show’s exposition of cultural differences permeating daily routine in the TUF house creates an intimate dialogue with viewers of the same nationality. As a Brit myself, I found the dynamic very entertaining during Bisping’s and Ross Pearson’s respective seasons as international TUF coaches.
This focus allows the UFC to target emerging national markets at a time when pay-per-view satellite television and a digital network make the UFC product accessible to a truly global audience. Through diligent scheduling, the series has coincided with the promotion’s exploration of new territories for UFC events, from Brisbane, Australia to Macau, China and Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
By engaging new markets through a mainstream format like reality television, the UFC increases its potential audience size, increasing the likelihood of attracting new MMA fans. A portion of these fans will invest money in the UFC’s other revenue streams, including live shows and merchandise.
Beyond the commercial incentives of the TUF Nations concept, the show’s premise adds a new dynamic to the individual fights.
Finding a niche in the wave of fresh content announced for 2014, TUF Nations elicits sentiments of patriotism among viewers from respective countries. Whether fighters associated with the show like it or not, they carry the responsibility of national pride into every fight, adding a new layer of promotional narrative to each bout that does not exist so strongly on UFC’s bigger shows.
The first UFC shows from Brazil in 2011 testified to the succes of the nationality angle. Zealous fans from the South American state manufactured an “us vs. them” mentality succinctly captured by the iconic chant, “Uh, vai morrer!” that continues to create an exciting atmosphere today.
As a fresh approach to The Ultimate Fighter, TUF Nations reinforces the concept of unity that originally underpinned the entire show, but has become less significant in recent years.
In an individual sport, it’s natural that team spirit subsides as the finals approach. In TUF’s international seasons, however, the collective interest of bragging rights endures to the very end of the series, bestowing a whole new level of significance to each fight, as alluded to above.
Similarly, whereas previous TUF seasons might have taken more time to root out the genuine contenders for winning the season, the earlier fights now help establish momentum for each nation. By tapping into an ideology that a significant share of the global population subscribes to—national pride—the importance of which team wins is heightened, almost on par with the individual accolade of winning the series.
Then there are the coaches. Traditional seasons of The Ultimate Fighter typically appointed champions, No. 1 contenders and top stars from the UFC as head trainers.
In contrast, the TUF Nations series profiles current UFC fighters who aren’t in the immediate title picture. The series profiles these talents to a significant MMA audience, providing an opportunity that Patrick Cote, Kyle Noke, Ross Pearson and others might not have had otherwise. These fighters’ nationalities provide a selling point that compensates for their lack of name recognition relative to the sport’s biggest stars.
In midst of the UFC’s expansion, symbolized by more show dates and new locations, TUF Nations is a tool that amplifies a fighter’s appeal to a key geographical audience.
Among criticisms of the UFC hosting weaker cards in light of its attempt to diversify, bringing TUF Nations talent to new UFC territories adds strength to smaller shows. These cards, most likely to be broadcast on the UFC’s Fight Pass digital subscription network, allow TUF fighters who are new to the organization and typically younger in age to establish themselves in the Octagon before graduating to the higher-grossing events. In turn, the UFC’s matchmakers can retain the services of top talent for higher-profile events on Fox Sports 1 and pay-per-view, which remain the UFC’s primary draw.
This new three-tier hierarchy of the UFC’s event schedule—Fight Pass, the Fox networks and pay-per-view—is a testament to how quickly the organization has grown since the days when the brand was exclusive to pay-per-view.
Perhaps no show is more indicative of this evolution than TUF Nations.