A years-long flirtation became a legitimate pact in 2018.
The UFC and ESPN, who had been circling one another for a while, finally teamed up in earnest. The biggest MMA promotion in the world signed a broadcast and streaming U.S. distribution deal with the largest sports network in the world in May. The scope of the contract was enormous — $1.5 billion over five years. The deal begins Jan. 1 and the UFC and ESPN together will now shape the future of mixed martial arts for the foreseeable future.
When the UFC left Spike TV for FOX Sports in 2011, it was groundbreaking for the sport. It signaled a move toward the mainstream. The UFC would be on network television — in primetime — multiple times per year. MMA became a stalwart for FOX Sports 1, Rupert Murdoch’s counter to ESPN, in 2013.
Under the FOX umbrella, the UFC became a regular, nearly weekly, presence on television, not unlike the other major sports. It became a familiar part of cable TV, if not fully mainstream. FOX had interest in bringing the UFC back, but ultimately chose to bid for WWE Smackdown, which it snagged for $1.025 billion over five years. Smackdown will air every Friday night on big FOX beginning in October 2019.
Signing with ESPN represents another leveling up for the UFC. The FOX contract was reportedly worth an average of $100 million over seven years. This one with ESPN is triple that annually, though not as much as the UFC told potential buyers it could command during the Fertitta brothers’ sale process to WME-IMG in 2016. Financially, it remains a major victory.
The UFC’s deal with ESPN includes 30 UFC Fight Night cards per year. Of those, 10 main cards will air on ESPN’s cable TV networks. The other 20 will stream on ESPN+, the company’s new digital streaming service. ESPN will also air, in some way (cable or digital), the prelims of the UFC’s 12 pay-per-view events annually, much like FS1 did before it.
Included in the deal will be Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, pre- and post-fight shows, part of the UFC fight library from UFC Fight Pass, shoulder programming and a new series produced by IMG Original Content.
ESPN represents another blue-chip brand that the UFC is involved with. It figures to get major airtime on the network’s magazine and talk shows. While ratings for ESPN are down, it remains the most influential sports network in the world, with deals with the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA and more. ESPN is owned by Disney, which gives the UFC another powerhouse partner to work alongside.
A major question will be how the UFC will fare over the next five years in terms of growth. Now, 20 of the fight cards that used to air on FS1, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers, will be on the ESPN+ streaming service, behind a pay wall. It’s not public how many subscribers the relatively new ESPN+ streaming service has at $4.99 a month. Will fans who already pay $65 per month for pay-per-view events and another $9.99 a month for UFC Fight Pass plunk down the extra money?
We’ll begin finding that out very soon. The first UFC on ESPN+ offering is scheduled for Jan. 19 in Brooklyn. It was obvious the UFC and ESPN wanted to make a big splash for the first one, because the promotion moved its UFC 233 main event of Henry Cejudo vs. T.J. Dillashaw for the flyweight title to Barclays Center. Eventually, the UFC 233 pay-per-view card was canceled. The first UFC on ESPN+ event will include prelims on big ESPN.
Another thing to watch for in the new year, as the ESPN deal picks up, is which talent from FOX will make the move over. It’s expected that Karyn Bryant, Megan Olivi, Laura Sanko and others will continue in their duties, since the UFC, not ESPN, will be producing its own shows. Michael Bisping has said he’ll be doing commentary work for ESPN. Fighters like him, Daniel Cormier, Tyron Woodley, Dominick Cruz, Paul Felder, Kenny Florian and more made a name for themselves as excellent analysts and/or commentators on FOX and FS1.
Either way, the UFC has attained a dream that White and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta set when they bought the UFC in 2001 — airing alongside other major sports properties on ESPN. It might have been a pipe dream 17 years ago, but now it is a reality.