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Click Debate: With UFC television deal in flux, uncertainty reigns on many levels

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Where will the UFC’s next television deal land?
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Where the UFC lands when its television deal with FOX ends later this year will be one of the biggest stories of 2018. And things are already starting to heat up.

Two reports surfaced over the last few weeks with divergent potential scenarios. Earlier this month, the gossip blog Terez Owens reported that ESPN and NBC would be splitting the UFC’s broadcast deal with more TV fights and less pay-per-views as part of the arrangement. Last week, Variety had an exclusive story that stated that ESPN and FOX had worked in tandem to make a bid, with ESPN’s new streaming service ESPN+ getting more than a dozen fight cards per year.

In terms of credibility, Variety holds more weight as a media outlet. But at this rate, a lot of what comes out publicly is conjecture until something more official is announced. Remember there were reports years ago that the UFC had signed on the bottom line with NBC before eventually ending up on FOX.

Let’s say for a second that there is truth in the Variety report and the UFC is split between FOX and ESPN. It would be a deal that makes sense for ESPN, since it is trying to bulk up its new $4.99 ESPN+ platform with live sports and unique content. FOX, meanwhile, would pay a bit more for fewer fights, but still keep a staple of its programming on FS1 and quarterly(ish) shows on the flagship network.

That’s more reasonable than the NBC-ESPN joint bid that Terez Owens reported, which would include things like fighters being exclusive to a network like boxing, more fight cards, the addition of new weight classes and Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series replacing The Ultimate Fighter.

Both reports have UFC events on ESPN+, which means another cost for fight fans. And questions will surely arise about what the future is for UFC Fight Pass.

Those questions extend from fans to current FOX on-air talent — people like Karyn Bryant, Daniel Cormier, Tyron Woodley, Kenny Florian, Yves Edwards and more — as well as behind-the-scenes executives and producers who have been working UFC on FOX events and shows since the deal was brokered in 2011.

With fans wondering how they’re going to be watch their favorite fighters in 2019 and beyond, there are people at FOX unsure about whether or not they’ll have jobs in a few months. ESPN might want to produce its own events, like it does for other sports. The UFC has never allowed a network to produce events — it has only done it internally. Control has been a sticking point for previous deals, but times are changing in the Endeavor era.

Cormier, the UFC light heavyweight champion, believes he is secure, at least as a pay-per-view color commentator. But he has no idea how things will shake out on the TV side. He’s the co-host of UFC Tonight, the Wednesday night magazine-style show, but that might not even exist under a new package.

“I worry about it,” Cormier said. “But, I mean, there’s nothing I can do. I’m lucky, though. Because with the commentary, it doesn’t matter who has it. I’m gonna still work for the UFC. But I worry about it for people like Karyn and Tyron and also all the people at FOX. These are great people — people like [executives and producers Sonnie] Sallberg, Donovan Tar and Steve Becker. They’re all good people, man. And they rely on this TV package deal to be OK. I worry more about them than myself.”

When Brian Stann stepped away from UFC commentary and analysis last year, one of the things he mentioned was the unknown of the next TV deal. The unease has only increased on the FOX lot in Los Angeles.

“There’s uncertainty, but at the same time we believe we do a good job and we continue to put out the best product we can,” Bryant said. “It’s not like we’ve decided to just phone it in, because we don’t know what’s happening. We’re all delivering the best shows that we can. But certainly there’s a little bit of that dark humor, like, ‘Oh, it might be the last time you do this or that.’ We want to keep it, obviously. But we really just don’t know what’s going on. So, it can be a little bit uncertain, for sure.”

From the people fans see on TV every week to the producers to the crew and people in production, everything could be very much in flux. Or FOX could still be in the picture. No one knows yet.

“It really does affect a lot of lives,” Bryant said. “It’s not like anybody is sending out résumés yet. But we really are curious where it’s going and would love to know sooner than later.”

Bryant said FOX talent has been told they should find out more this summer. That’s probably the same for everyone else.

In a space where the UFC has the vast majority of the market share, the entire sport of MMA will feel the ripple effect of where the promotion ends up on television. How people watch the product, how it is produced and who is on everyone’s screen to present it is absolutely vital and could be completely different by this time next year.

In other words, from the fans to the anchors to the grips to the mainstream, the UFC’s new television deal will end up shaping the future of mixed martial arts. For better or for worse.