Last Updated Apr 5, 2010 8:30 AM EDT
The action began in January, when the UFC announced that it would begin going after the online sites that stream its pay-per-view bouts for free. The company said it discovered 271 illegal streams during a recent show, with over 140,000 viewers, or roughly $7 million in lost revenue. The company has also begun going after individuals, recently suing a bar owner in Boston who broadcast an online stream without paying the UFC licensing fee.
But beginning last week the UFC also made hundreds of fights available online for free. All these bouts are tied into their reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, which just began its eleventh season on the cable network, Spike. The free videos aren't the huge championship fights for which the UFC charges $50 as pay per view. But many were only available through pirate sites before, and the reality show has proved a invaluable tool for nurturing young stars in the league.
The UFC also used to charge a fee to watch the bouts from its big shows that never made the live broadcast. Fans had to sign up for a troublesome online service and pay to download the videos. But in the last few months the company has begun to air these smaller fights for free on Spike, garnering big ratings from an enviable demographic of young males.
From a business perspective, this is an old yarn. Like Hollywood and the RIAA, the UFC is struggling to balance the impulse to curb piracy with the benefits that come from cultivating an audience online. Recently it seems like they are getting it right. They're taking a hard line on blatant piracy, while expanding their free content on the web and basic cable. Like a good mixed martial artist the UFC understand that sometimes you need to hit hard, and sometimes you have to let your opponent come to you.