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UFC’s exclusive deal with ESPN smart for both sides

Dana White
Dana White
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On Wednesday night, Dana White appeared on SportsCenter for the first time since the UFC became ESPN’s latest billion-dollar toy. The first thing he was asked wasn’t about the new exclusive deal but rather about Conor McGregor, whom he intends to meet with in Liverpool this weekend when the UFC visits there. Poor Sage Steele couldn’t have known that McGregor won’t be appearing in the Octagon on the World Wide Leader’s airwaves anytime soon — not unless somebody intends to throw a dolly through the window of that new Brinks trunk and snatch a hefty percentage.

It wasn’t until the very end of the interview that White was asked what it means for his barefoot baby to take its first steps on the Flagship.

“It’s huge,” he said, perhaps a little hungover. “It’s huge for our athletes, and, you know, I’m up here at my place in Maine celebrating right now. It’s one of the greatest moments of my life. It’s a big deal.”

Damn right it’s a big deal! Damn right he’s celebrating! One-point-five billion? And no owner-fighter revenue share? Shiiiiiit. You can hear the unce-unce-unce all the way down in Connecticut. Popping them bottles has become a seasonal pastime for White, who cashed out close to $400 million in the 2016 sale with WME-IMG (now known as Endeavor). He told Jimmy Kimmel that he sort of “Howard Hughes’d [himself] for a couple of days in a hotel room” trying to process it all.

Now he’s recovered enough to help his new partners recoup some of that investment, and that’s got to feel pretty good. Especially when so many people over the last couple of years have been singing tragic tunes about the UFC’s lack of stars, its diminishing numbers, oversaturation, its homogenized look under Reebok, its reluctant champions, its weight-cutting issues, the constant red flags from USADA, its flawed rankings, its absurd main card start times, its last-minute fallouts, its preferential matchmaking, its faulty scoring system, its inept referees, its spray-painted blood spills, its long breaks between fights on FS1, its unnerving loyalty to Stemm, its fibs about 2017 being the biggest year by far, and, of course, Tyron Woodley.

Say that White can’t, and he does. That’s been his mission since taking over as president of the UFC in early-2001. Nobody thought he’d end up getting his bloodsport on network television to begin with, and he did. That’s what he does: Defy people. Fighting’s not in our DNA? Here comes Dana with a blood test to prove otherwise. He doesn’t always tell the truth, but somehow — through audacity and red-faced guile — White keeps pushing this sport into bigger and broader realms, converting stodgy old suits into fans, and upping his own ante.

White is perhaps the greatest salesman sports has ever known.

Now FOX has run its course, and it’s on to ESPN. Who could have guessed that in 2019 that an ESPN-UFC alliance would be match made in heaven? Remember, people have been singing about ESPN’s demise, as well, claiming that it has lost touch with what made it great. That it is mired in politics, and can’t stick to sports. You know who will never be accused of getting stale? Guys like Nate Diaz who light up fat spliffs when the camera finds him, that’s who.

Just when you wonder how Mickey might look with some plugs, here comes the UFC — the anti-PC sports league — with a new five-year, $1.5 billion deal that will house a grand total of 42 events across its television and digital platforms. That’s a fresh coat of paint, with the right dose of progressive edge. And it’s smart from a business standpoint. Fans that have been conditioned to pay for the UFC as a product, whether it’s through Fight Pass or pay-per-views. They won’t flinch in subscribing to ESPN+, a major factor in this deal, because their wallets never close. ESPN will gamely yield television space to help build its fortress behind the app paywall.

And though we won’t know how it all looks until it gets rolling, fans of MMA should be excited. ESPN sells the living hell out of its properties, and can aggrandize with the very best of them. When Scott Van Pelt casually starts discussing Kimuras, you know we’ve come a long way.

Which matters when talking about the sport’s world’s popular table. I can remember going to UFC 134 in Rio for ESPN, and listening to White bemoan the fact that the UFC wasn’t on the main set of tabs on ESPN’s home web page. He pointed out that you could find any of the major four sports, and select college sports, but not MMA. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. That was right before the launch of the FOX deal, when exclusion from the party smarted more than anything else, and legitimacy was still dictated by all that couldn’t be had.

Seven years later, that won’t be a problem. It’s a big deal to land on ESPN, even in small ways. Unce-unce-unce.

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