Reality television series have produced famous names in several major industries, from fashion to musical theatre. Countless singers relied on reality television to give them their big break, and the likes of Girls Aloud, Leona Lewis, and One Direction haven’t exactly gone on to do too badly since. Shows like The X Factor thrilled the world in the mid-2000s, which inspired networks in the US and the UK to merge the worlds of sport and reality entertainment in the hope of emulating their popularity.
Not every winner of these sporting series would go on to achieve stratospheric levels of fame, but these shows reinforced the power of reality television as entertainment.
The Ultimate Fighter
The Ultimate Fighter is the most successful sporting reality TV show, credited with sending the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) on its trajectory to worldwide popularity. Without TUF, the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) would look quite different today. Betway has investigated the impact of the show in catapulting the UFC to global domination, citing statistics that reveal the extent of the series’ legacy. Six members of the UFC Hall of Fame have emerged from TUF since its inception in 2005 (Forrest Griffin, Diego Sanchez, Stephan Bonnar, Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping, and Matt Serra).
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Ten TUF alumni have used the show as a springboard to earn a UFC belt, but the series has done more than boost individual careers. Three million people tuned in to watch the first season finale, which saw Griffin and Sanchez secure six-figure UFC contracts. Before TUF, the UFC was struggling to generate enough pay-per-views to be lucrative, but this show changed everything. In the 15 years since the TUF’s debut season, the UFC has sold 90 million pay-per-views, expanded into over 20 new countries, and established a value of around $7 billion. Anyone who watches UFC action live on BT Sport has the influence of TUF to thank, as the sport wouldn’t still be so popular in the UK without it.
Nothing really comes close to the success of The Ultimate Fighter in terms of sporting reality TV shows. TUF had been successful for Spike TV as detailed by The Hollywood Reporter, and NBC hoped they could similarly strike gold with The Contender. NBC’s 2005 series followed a group of boxers, in and out of the ring, as they fought to be the last man standing in the competition. With Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard as presenters, The Contender certainly wasn’t lacking in star quality.
However, the first season didn’t gain enough traction to justify NBC paying a cost of $2,000,000 to make each episode. ESPN, Versus, and Epix all subsequently tried to revive The Contender. While it didn’t become a global phenomenon like The Ultimate Fighter, The Contender did produce one success story: Sergio Mora. ‘The Latin Snake’ won the show’s first season and later became a WBC light middleweight champion. Mora retired in 2018 with a 29-5-2 record, with his career the best thing to come from NBC’s season of The Contender.
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MMA and boxing competitions celebrate individuality in the ring, so they arguably translate more seamlessly to a competitive reality TV format. It’s been more challenging for team sports to adapt. That might be why we haven’t seen a hit reality show focused on producing Major League Baseball stars, although football series has shown that it can work. Football Icon ran for two seasons from 2005-2006 on Sky One and, while no Football Icon competitors made it to the Premier League, some of its contestants carved out professional careers in the lower leagues.
Carl Magnay won the second season and impressed the Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, securing the prize of a contract with the London club. While Magnay never appeared for Chelsea, he made over 100 appearances for Hartlepool United in the fourth and fifth tiers of English football. The defender wasn’t known for his goalscoring exploits, although he did wow the footballing world with a 40-yard belter against Barrow in 2018. Moses Ademola starred in the same series as Magnay, with the forward signing a professional deal with Brentford before becoming a prolific finisher in the lower leagues.
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As we’ve explored here at Global Sports, it’s not easy being a professional athlete. Even when the action is a cut below professional competitions, these three shows have provided a fascinating insight into sport’s behind-the-scenes pressure. In the case of The Ultimate Fighter, the action was at an elite level, as the series reinvigorated an entire sport and introduced us to fighters who would become MMA legends. This makes it the pinnacle of sporting reality television.