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UFC aims to increase sport’s visibility on television

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has in large part helped build Spike TV into a significant player among cable networks with its live fight cards and “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series.

Television executives have begun looking closely at mixed martial arts because of Spike’s success in attracting men, primarily those in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old and 18- to 49-year-old demographics.

But UFC president Dana White said Tuesday that the sport will have a much stronger television presence in 2007.

White said pointedly that UFC fights will be on HBO in the summer, though Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports, said his company has nothing to announce.

“But stay tuned,” Greenburg said.

White, whose company will stage a card from Manchester, England, on Saturday on Spike TV that features a heavyweight match between top-ranked Mirko Cro Cop and jiu-jitsu expert Gabriel Gonzaga, also said ESPN will begin covering UFC fights.

He added that he is closing in on what he called a strong television contract for the Pride Fighting Championship. The owners of the UFC recently purchased Pride. And White pointed out that Versus will begin televising World Extreme Cagefighting in June.

White said repeatedly that the UFC will be on HBO in the summer and spoke as if he had a deal completed. He conceded HBO had won a big argument between the companies, as Zuffa, the company that owns the UFC, had wanted to produce the broadcast and hire the announcers.

White said HBO will do the production and hire its own announcers but was emphatic that HBO’s longtime boxing tandem of blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley and analyst Larry Merchant won’t be part of announcing UFC fights on HBO.

“It won’t be Lampley or Merchant, I guarantee you that,” White said.

White later backed off his comments that a deal with HBO was completed.

At one stage, he said, “We would never have signed a deal we were uncomfortable with.” But White hedged later when pressed for specifics.

He was adamant, though, that a deal is soon to be finalized. He said the UFC would use “all of our top guys” on a potential HBO broadcast.

“We haven’t signed or announced anything yet,” White said. “I’m just being cocky and telling you we’ll definitely be putting on a show (on HBO) this summer.”

White said mixing fights on free television with pay per view is important for the sport’s long-term health. He said boxing promoters focus only on pay per view, which he said is detrimental to developing new fans.

White said he wasn’t worried about oversaturating the market with MMA as long as good fights are televised.

“Boxing got so greedy and started putting everything on pay per view,” White said. “Everything went to pay per view. It’s not like when we were growing up and you could see USA’s ‘Tuesday Night Fights’ and ‘Wide World of Sports’ and things like that.

“They got into this having C- and D-level fighters fighting on the sports networks that were (lousy) fights you didn’t want to watch. That’s not going to happen with us.”

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