The UFC announced something that it has never done in the past Thursday, announcing a distribution deal with the all-women Invicta Fighting Championships that will lead to all the company's content being put on Fight Pass.
The new agreement will see Fight Pass, UFC's worldwide Internet-based subscription channel, airing every Invicta show live, from start to finish. In addition, the content from all seven prior Invicta shows, which includes a number of current UFC fighters as well as the majority of the fighters on the fall season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, will be up on Fight Pass shortly.
The first live show is tentatively slated for late summer. The company has never distributed content from another promotion unless it owned the company outright, or purchased its content after the company ceased operations. The deal is clearly big for Invicta, which has only run two shows in the last 12 months, and nothing since Dec. 7, since attempting to make it work as a traditional pay-per-view company but without a U.S. television deal.
"We've never done this with a company before unless we've bought them," said UFC Chief Content Officer Marshall Zelaznik. "We're not buying. We're truly a distributor. It's pretty historical in the way UFC has operated."
"Now that we have a stable foundation, we're going to increase the number of events," said Invicta promoter Shannon Knapp. "We want to see how things go, and look at the frequency (of live shows). Those are things we're still ironing out. We're capable of doing more events and we're looking to ramp things up. We can put on cards as often as they want. I think it's going to be a great thing."
Live events up to this point have been a strong catalyst in bringing new subscribers to the platform.
As part of the deal, UFC will help promote the events, and will also aid in distribution of the content on traditional television. UFC is looking at using its contacts to help broker international deals for Invicta, which can include both the prior shows as well as either live simulcasts on television or tape delayed broadcast of the upcoming events, with UFC holding the digital distribution rights.
Invicta will remain in charge of the production of the shows.
"We'll make sure we're comfortable with things," said Zelaznik.
He said the decisions regarding the number of fights and length of the shows would be up to Invicta, but they are committed to airing the entire cards.
"We've been working with Shannon for a while trying to come up with a way to have Invicta events within Fight Pass," said Zelaznik, whose duties include heading up Fight Pass. "We've recently come to terms on that. It's a mutli-year deal, multi-fights. Our commitment to Shannon is every event they produce will air on Fight Pass around the world. Everyone has looked at UFC as a promoter, but now you can look at us as a distributor as well for broadcasting at this point. We're hoping for the first event later this summer. Shannon's working hard locking down the date and we're super thrilled about it, everyone from Dana (White) and Lorenzo (Fertitta) on down. Everyone is excited to bring Invicta to Fight Pass and bring that value to our fans.
"I think it's an amazing opportunity for the athletes and for Invicta, teaming up with the UFC and having there marketing power behind us, giving us exposure to UFC fans," said Knapp.
Knapp called Kansas City, where the previous seven Invicta shows have taken place from, as "highly possible" for the first event, but said with the new deal they could start promoting throughout the country.
Zelaznik talked about creating an Invicta area on Fight Pass and having it ready soon.
"Two to three weeks is the hope," he said. "That library has current fighters in the UFC like Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano, Liz Carmouche and Sara McMann. This will continue to deliver on the philosophy of Fight Pass - you'll be more ingrained in the sport and smarter in he sport because of Fight Pass."
The UFC and Invicta have worked together in the past. The UFC recently purchased the contracts of the top fighters in Invicta's strawweight division (115 pounds) to create a new division and run a tournament for the championship on the fall season of The Ultimate Fighter. The filming begins in four weeks. This six-week long tournament that will culminate in a championship fight at the end of the year. Sarah Kaufman, while under UFC contract, fought on an Invicta show last year. Both sides expect that working relationship to continue.
Knapp said since the last show, she's signed 20 or 21 new fighters from around the world, including replenishing the strawweight division. Unlike the UFC, where fighters will compete in two weight classes, Invicta will have fighters in five weight classes ranging from 105 to 145 pounds.
It's possible the Invicta deal will be just the start of UFC broadcasting events with other smaller groups.
"I think it's a unique opportunity," said Zelaznik. "We have a good relationship with Shannon and Invicta. We think that the Invicta fan base crosses over, but they also will bring in a different fan to Fight Pass. I have no doubt the exposure we can bring to Invicta will help our female divisions. There are so many discussions about what Fight Pass will become. It's now part of the lexicon of MMA. This opportunity with Shannon was unique because of what Shannon brings to the business. As far as bringing in other promotions, other promotions are reaching out to us. We've got a list of promotions running. Will we pull the trigger on them? It's too early to tell. But we feel real confident this deal will serve out existing costumers and bring in new customers."
There is talk of Cris "Cyborg" Justino (12-1, 1 no contest), the group's biggest star and featherweight champion, defending against Ediane Gomes (10-2), on that debut event, but Invicta promoter Shannon Knapp said it's too early to make that announcement official.
Justino, whose 2009 win over Gina Carano was the fight that showed the potential appeal of women's MMA fighting, has talked this year of dieting down to make 135 pounds for a potential UFC bantamweight title fight with Ronda Rousey, which could be the biggest woman's combat sports bout of this era. The deal would give Justino's current fights exposure to a new audience of hardcore UFC fans around the world. Most of her previous North American bouts, in both Elite XC and Strikeforce, are already owned by UFC and will also be on Fight Pass.
"It's highly possible that (Justino vs. Gomes) will be a match that can air on the next show," said Knapp. "But both athletes have shown interest in dropping down to 135. I think it's possible you can see Cris fight at 135 in the next few months. I haven't had time to verify the game plan. It'll be interesting."