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ESPN execs ready for the dawn of a new UFC era

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In the weeks before the UFC’s five-year deal with ESPN kicked off, those who run the venerable sports network got an inkling that maybe their new partner is just a little bit different than the majority of the sports entities they’ve broadcast over the past 40 years.

On six days’ notice, the UFC moved its big year-end show, UFC 232, from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., due to potential licensure issues regarding headliner Jon Jones.

ESPN has aired most of the North American sports menu, from the NFL to the NBA to MLB to the NHL to major college football and basketball at various points over the years, but this was something new. You don’t see the Rose Bowl pick up and move from California to another state a week before the big game, after all.

While UFC 232 wasn’t an ESPN broadcast, the company still had staff assigned to the card, so the venue change helped give an idea how wild and woolly the mixed martial arts business can get.

“That was quite a logistical challenge,” ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling Burke Magnus told MMA Fighting. “And then you had the thing where they rescheduled the card out in Anaheim [UFC 233] just recently, too. But that’s OK. You know what comes with the territory when you get into the fight game, they do things differently than other properties and that’s part of the fun.”

Saturday night, the UFC on ESPN era kicks off in earnest with the first event on ESPN’s streaming service. UFC on ESPN+ is headlined by bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw’s move down to flyweight to challenge champion Henry Cejudo at Barclays Center in the New York City borough of Brooklyn — a bout which was shifted from Anaheim in order to kickstart the partnership in grand style.

The $300 million per year deal, which will this year see 10 full events and 12 pay-per-view preliminary card broadcasts on linear cable (ESPN and ESPN 2), plus another 20 events on ESPN+, puts the punctuation mark on a remarkable change in philosophy toward MMA for the company.

Over the past decade-plus, fans have seen networks from CBS to Showtime to Spike/Paramount to FOX (which just completed a seven-year UFC deal) commit to MMA programming to varying degrees, while the ESPN family of networks remained at best a dabbler in the sport. There were occasional forays such as the MMA Live studio show and an early Bellator run on ESPN Deportes, but ESPN never went all-in.

But that’s changed over the past year due to a confluence of events which led the Disney corporate home of Mickey Mouse, Elsa, and Anna to also include head-kick knockouts and rear-naked chokes.

For one, ESPN has experienced ratings success with a renewed emphasis on boxing, demonstrating that combat sports continues to thrive in a rapidly shifting television landscape. After delivering audiences as high as 4.4 million for a Manny Pacquiao vs. Jeff Horn fight, ESPN and Top Rank recently announced a seven-year extension of their deal.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For another, ESPN last year hired Jimmy Pitaro as its new president in the same year the UFC’s rights deal was coming due. Pitaro was one of the first sports media executives to embrace mixed martial arts on a mainstream platform, as he oversaw the first fully staffed MMA coverage team for a major sports website at Yahoo Sports beginning in 2007. (Disclosure: This author was a part of the Yahoo Sports editoral team from 2007-12.)

And while Pitaro can’t speak to the previous ESPN regime’s attitude toward MMA, he says his Yahoo experience taught him the time was right for the UFC to come to ESPN.

“Back at Yahoo we could see this was an extremely engaged audience of young viewers who visited the site in droves and spent a lot of time on the site,” Pitaro said. “And when you look at the numbers today, you can see the same audience has been early adapters in new technologies like streaming services. Combat sports is going to be an important facet of our business to ESPN+, and when the UFC’s rights became available, I mean to me, this was a no-brainer of a deal to make.”

With the UFC retaining the production of their broadcasts, many of the aspects of fight night will remain familiar to regular fans, including the announce squads, led by the A-team of play-by-play announcer Jon Anik, lead color commentator Joe Rogan, and a revolving cast of active fighters such as Daniel Cormier and Dominick Cruz in commentary roles.

There will also be familiar faces handling such studio events as pre-and-post fight shows and weigh-in broadcasts, as those coming over from FOX to work for ESPN include host Karyn Bryant, plus former UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping and former UFC light heavyweight champ Rashad Evans as analysts.

Saturday’s debut card will feature Anik and Cormier cageside; Bryant, Bisping, and Rashad Evans in the studio; and Megan Olivi handling backstage interviews.

But that doesn’t mean ESPN won’t be putting its own unique signature on the product.

If FOX, and to a lesser extent the UFC itself, consistently whiffed on an aspect of the sport’s coverage, it’s been on moving the ball forward on storylines coming out of events.

To use an example, a fighter like undefeated lightweight Gregor Gillespie — who fights Yancy Medeiros on Saturday night in Brooklyn — earned three finish victories on FOX shows in 2017-18 and should be on the verge of breaking out as a star at this point.

But he hasn’t reached critical mass with the fans yet, because he wins in impressive fashion and then disappears without much follow-up from either the promoter or the network.

It seems to take an event the magnitude of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor at UFC 229 to get mainstream media to talk about what happened, leaving up-and-comers left behind in the shuffle, which in part has led to an excess of “where is the next Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey-level star coming from?” hand-wringing among MMA insiders.

But ESPN vice president of UFC and boxing Glenn Jacobs feels ESPN is ready to capitalize on this aspect in ways others haven’t. For one, the company says you can expect to see more focus on the sport’s personalities, both in the lead-up to the fights and in the aftermath, across ESPN’s various platforms. This includes working UFC content into signature programming such as popular morning shows like First Take, in addition to a Wednesday SportsCenter segment called “Inside the Cage.”

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“If you look at any league we’ve partnered with, when we go all-in, we go across all platforms,” Jacobs said. “If something happens on ESPN, you can expect you’re going to see follow up on linear cable and Plus and over the radio and on anywhere we can talk about it. We’re going to put the ESPN stamp on things.”

To that end, ESPN has the makings of an interesting concept in a show called “Destined.” Beginning with a focus on this week’s Cejudo vs. Dillashaw fight, “Destined,” which will air on ESPN+, is one part “24/7” or “Countdown”-style fight documentary, as they follow the champions around and peer into their lives as they prepare for their main-event bout.

Most of this sort of programming ends on fight night, but “Destined” will also stick with the competitors after the fight, chronicling the thrill of victory and agony of defeat in the locker room and even following the fighters back home after the bout and giving a glimpse into a period of a fighter’s life when the camera is usually gone.

“It’s a little bit 24/7, we’re not the first to document the buildup to a fight,” said Jacobs, who indicated there won’t be a “Destined” for every card, but rather will simply be done when the storylines and personalities warrant. “But we’re going to show the fans the entire story from start to finish. We’re really excited to see how this one turns out.”

While stars obviously drive ratings, Jacobs says there will also be programming catering to the hardcore fight fan. To that end, ESPN will soon began an X’s and O’s show called “Unlocking Victory,” which will be filmed at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas. “Unlocking Victory” will be co-hosted by two of the game’s most astute minds, former UFC and WEC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and former Strikeforce lightweight titleholder Gilbert Melendez. The show does not yet have a designated time slot, but is expected to air on both linear cable and over ESPN+.

“Here’s what I think is cool about ‘Unlocking Victory’,” Jacobs said. “I don’t have to tell you that Dom and Gilbert are two of the smartest guys in the business. But it’s the fact that they are really great at talking about the most technical aspects of mixed martial arts, but they do also do it in a way that’s easy for casual fans to understand. So I think we have something here which can satisfy the hardcore fan but the casuals will enjoy, too.”

No discussion of a media outlet partnering with the UFC is complete without a mention of the promotion’s occasional contentious relations with the media that covers it. It’s an issue which has flared up from time to time dating back to 2005, when UFC parent company Zuffa, then owned by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, stopped issuing credentials to several online outlets.

This on-and-off issue came to the forefront when ESPN’s partnership with the UFC was announced last year. The UFC briefly banned current ESPN reporter Ariel Helwani — who was then with MMA Fighting — back in 2016, before public outcry led the company to reverse its position.

But while the MMA social media bubble acts as if tension between sports entities and media is a unique circumstance, ESPN’s newsroom has long dealt with leagues in which the corporate side dislikes some of the things reporters are reporting.

“It’s not like this is something new,” Pitaro said. “The big stick-and-ball sports don’t like everything we publish, but we’re here to report the news that matters. I’ve got a long relationship with Dana White, and yeah, I’m going to hear about it sometimes, but they know we’re going stay on top of the issues of the day because the viewers demand it.”

To that end, in recent weeks, ESPN’s editorial staff has stayed on top of controversial topics, from the Jones drug test results which led to his fight with Alexander Gustafsson being moved from Las Vegas to the Los Angeles area to the debut of former NFL player Greg Hardy, who got in legal trouble due to domestic abuse issues, on Saturday’s Brooklyn show.

“You’ve seen it already in the news we’ve reported,” Jacobs said. “Ariel’s not going to shy away from reporting something if Dana doesn’t want it reported. We’re not going to avoid tough issues.”

When all is said and done, while it has taken a lot of time and effort to reach Saturday’s UFC on ESPN+ card, it also simply marks a beginning. Those involved know that MMA fans can be quick to pounce over social media on the smallest of glitches. Jacobs, for his part, wants it known this is an ongoing process.

“That’s what makes this exciting,” Jacobs said. “It’s rare you get to build out coverage on something that’s brand new at a place as established as ESPN. We know UFC fans are passionate. Are there going to be bumps along the way? Sure. It’s a learning curve. But that’s what makes this such an exciting time.”

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