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UFC financially secure until 2023 with ESPN deal, but there are brand risks

The UFC’s deal with ESPN starts in 2019.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC’s deal with ESPN as its exclusive U.S. home that was recently announced by both groups is not just a game-changer financially for UFC, but also a notable experiment for sports in general.

While not a complete switch, the UFC will be the first major sports organization to cut back significantly on television time, while taking a big money deal to have the majority of its live programming on a streaming service.

At the same time, with the $300 million price tag, UFC joins most major sports properties where the former traditional method of selling the product directly to the consumer for revenue is replaced as the key financial part of existence by creating hour upon hour of content for television and kickstarting a streaming service.

Being on ESPN has its obvious advantages: A sports property having the promotional synergy of working with the sports leader in the U.S. It’s a lock that there will be more promotional time to events, and the fighters, particularly the ones with personalities, will have more opportunities to sell themselves to a far larger sports audience than before. The deal also has its disadvantages, including far less television airtime and no broadcast network component, as well as no longer being top dog on a station, but simply being one of many, and inherently a far lower-profile sports property than the big five (NFL, NBA, MLB, college football and basketball) on the station.

The price tag is enough to make UFC more successful and stable than ever before, even if the pay-per-view business doesn’t rebound and another megastar doesn’t come along,

But in some ways, the number was disappointing. No, the $400 million annual figure for television rights that was talked about for this next deal when Endeavor purchased UFC in 2016 was not really expected. Insiders has always talked about a figure of $250 million to $300 million as a more realistic number, which they hit the upper end of. But the figure came across less impressive because World Wrestling Entertainment, negotiating a new deal at the same time, garnered headlines the same week by hitting the real jackpot with a $445 million+ deal that also gives the company weekly prime time exposure on the FOX network.

While there was a nine-month difference when the respective deals expired, with UFC negotiating for this coming January, and WWE for October 2019, the belief going in was that both properties — who were getting a similar $160 million for U.S. television rights — would probably get a similar number with its new deal. Many felt that the UFC’s new deal, since it expired first, would provide the range of what WWE could later receive. Yet, two years ago, even with WWE’s higher television ratings, the feeling was that their lower ad rates and worse demographics, as well as significant ratings declines, would mean the UFC — on fire at the time as a company — would be the hot property of the 2018 season.

The lesson is twofold. First, the most important year is the contract year. WWE had years of declining ratings, but this past year, as television in general fell, WWE stabilized, and also had the high-profile signing of Ronda Rousey. Instead of being seen as a popular but declining property, it’s now a valuable property in a television business looking for something that can put up substantial and very consistent numbers. Things have changed so much that the former stigma of the fan base, or that its ratings meant nothing because of lower ad rates, were overlooked.

The UFC, on fire in 2016, declined on television significantly in 2017. FOX Sports 1 live events fell 17.6 percent in 2017, pay-per-view prelims dropped 13 percent, and FOX shows dropped 21.7 percent.

Worse, as the UFC was negotiating, its signature stars were all questionable. Rousey went to WWE. Conor McGregor and Jon Jones were self-destructive. Brock Lesnar remained with WWE, at least for the present.

If we fast-forward to January, this is how the dust will settle.

The big losers are FS1 and FS2, which relied on the UFC for a substantial amount of their programming. Really, both stations were built on the UFC and now they have a huge hole to fill, and with WWE exclusively on FOX, the reliable WWE ratings won’t help the stations in their battle with ESPN.

Financially, the biggest risk is ESPN+. A large part of the deal, including 20 live full shows and prelims on at least 10 more shows, will be on ESPN’s $4.99 per month streaming property. If one values the $300 million as half television and half streaming, and the original stream deal — at the time for 15, not 20 shows, was for $150 million — it would require UFC to bring in 2.5 million paying homes just to make up that money. And that’s actually quite low, because factoring in costs, that figure would have to be much larger than that. That figure is absurd, given the UFC’s own Fight Pass service had 400,000 to 500,000 subscribers worldwide, and the ESPN+ deal is just for the U.S.

More telling, for free, the recent UFC shows on FOX have hovered between 1.4 million and 1.7 million homes in recent years. It’s doubtful the streaming shows will be as good, and certainly not more loaded than the caliber of shows the UFC had put on network TV.

In theory, the UFC’s 10 live main cards and 12 pay-per-view prelims should do better than they had before, simply by being on a more popular station. But with more events streaming exclusively, they will be seen by far fewer number of viewers. And while ESPN ratings should beat FS1 ratings, they are unlikely to do the kind of viewership the UFC did on FOX.

Perhaps fewer shows on television is a blessing, as they’ll be seen as more special.

On paper, this should also help pay-per-views, both because more viewers should be watching the prelims, and also because one would expect ESPN to heavily push those pay-per-views, given fans can order them directly through ESPN+, meaning ESPN will get a cut of the streaming revenue. Based on how the deal is structured, it is likely also a benefit to the UFC, because ESPN is believed to be getting far less than cable companies, meaning if it can move its television pay-per-view buys to streaming, the UFC’s own profit margin per buy will increase.

The negative is fewer television shows and fewer television hours.

In 2018, between FOX, FS1, and FS2, the UFC will be on approximately 35 or 36 television dates and have 159 live fight hours. With the new deal, that declines in 2019 to 22 television dates and 54 total hours per year.

Another key is that FS1 on most Saturdays was broadcasting five hours. ESPN, on the other hand, will not only broadcast fewer dates, but its live shows will only be three hours. The one thing that had changed in recent years is that the UFC audience that had remained was more likely to be watching some or all of the prelims in greater number than ever before.

For the hardcore fan, things won’t be that different. A $4.99 per month price tag is minimal for the amount of content ESPN+ is offering.

It may hurt Fight Pass, but Dana White indicated this week that Fight Pass would continue to have exclusive events as well. Two weeks ago, the number going around was five Fight Pass shows per year, similar to prior years, meaning an increase from 39 or 40 events per year to 47, with 25 of the 47 exclusively streaming and another 10 more having two hours that were formerly on television now also streaming.

But to create new fans, being on a paying streaming service is not going to do that. With fewer hours, the people going through channels and watching a UFC event, which is the key to future growth, is going to be substantially less with so many fewer television hours.

When UFC signed with FOX in 2011, the idea was that huge numbers would watch the big Saturday night shows, as noted by 9.5 million viewers watching the one-minute long Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos debut heavyweight title fight. That was thought to be the building block and the future was bright, and with that as the start, the sky was the limit.

Instead, no UFC fight ever approached those numbers again.

The idea was that exposure to so many people on FOX would create more superstars, who would gain a fan base and that fan base would move with them to pay-per-view. And while the UFC had some good pay-per-view years, most notably 2016 — which could be argued was the greatest pay-per-view year any company ever had in that world — FOX exposure was not as much of the key as expected.

Rousey was exclusively a pay-per-view fighter. McGregor did one major television fight, but it was on FS1 and he was really built on social media. Nobody had more FOX time than Demetrious Johnson, and he dominated almost every time out and never lost, yet he was the weakest male pay-per-view drawing champion on the roster.

Also, we already had an example earlier this year when a FOX show was preempted in San Francisco, meaning the fans in that area who wanted to see it could switch to FSGO or Fox Now and stream it for free. In reality, the Northern California UFC fan base instead, for the most part, didn’t make that effort and skipped the show.

For UFC finances, that doesn’t really matter. Its money is guaranteed. And in 2023, when the next deal is being negotiated, the audience is likely to be far more apt to watch streaming programming. At the same time, if ESPN did overpay as much as it looks for streaming rights, and the UFC doesn’t lead to ESPN+ becoming a huge success, it won’t help the UFC in the next round. If it was a fixture on weekly television, there is less risk of being considered an experiment that they overpaid for and failed.

But the UFC is safe through 2023, and the media consumption world will be far different by then anyway.

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