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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Brooklyn

The UFC’s move to ESPN looks to help ratings, but the feel of the product isn’t different at all.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Denver-Cerrone vs Perry
Donald Cerrone was victorious again at UFC Brooklyn.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The UFC moved networks this past weekend to ESPN, but after the first offering, aside from the channel on your service, not much was different.

We had the same announcers. The same panelists. The same rules of the sport before every broadcast. The same post-fight show. The same production.

Really, aside from seeing ESPN talking head Stephen A. Smith in a host role, and people just waiting for him to say something that would make you cringe to hate him, and him not doing so at all, and the nature of the late start because a lead-in sports event went over, almost everything was the same.

With the Duke vs. Virginia college basketball game running about 12 minutes long, the only difference was the way the broadcast handled the delay. With the FOX deal, if a sports event went long on FS1 — and they did all the time — the fights would start anyway and be moved to FS2 until the sports event was over. With ESPN, the decision seems to be to just hold the start of the UFC show until the prior event is over. That really wasn’t a troublesome issue on Saturday, as the delay wasn’t that long and the four fights were cooperative.

But there will be slow games and overtime games that will push things 30 minute or more at some point, and the UFC and ESPN won’t be so fortunate as to have two first-round and one second-round finish in four fights when there’s a two-hour window. For Saturday, they could always delay the start of the streaming main card, but when it comes to this situation on a pay-per-view night, there is no margin to spare.

Going forward, the plan seems to be to start the shows earlier on non-pay-per-view nights so they end earlier. That makes all the sense in the world, as the peak audience for FS1 shows most weeks hit long before the main event, and that tells you a show is going too late.

The big positive from week one seems to be ratings. Moving to a higher-rated overall station is usually going to help ratings. Plus, with Saturday being a prime example, the UFC at times had strong NASCAR or college football lead-ins that boosted numbers on FS1. But on ESPN on Saturday nights, events like that will come with more frequency. The Duke-Virginia game that led into week one was a prime example of that. Saturday’s prelims were the highest-rated prelims for a Fight Night in at least five years, and aside from Donald Cerrone, there were no names who would move ratings on the ESPN portion of the card.

ESPN+ signed up 568,000 new subscribers on Friday and Saturday, with 525,000 coming on the day of the show. But much of the new sign-ups would have been for the seven-day free trial. At $4.99 per month and with 20 main cards as well as prelims and other content per year, that price point likely won’t be a deal-breaker to the hardcore UFC fan. But it’s still not an indication of the kind of paid numbers the UFC will generate.

For a first show, those numbers are great. But you also have to remember this deal with ESPN is for $300 million annually and ESPN+ is a huge part of it. The original streaming deal was done valuing these shows at $10 million each, and to make that work, you would need an average of well over two million UFC-based subscriptions at a steady rate. With the new deal that includes TV rights that really gets the value of a show down to more like $7 million, the break-even is a little better. But it’s still far more than 1.4 million subscribers, given that much of the $4.99 total for each individual order will involve all the other costs of operating the service.

Of course, nobody expects those kind of numbers any time soon, but that has to be the goal by the end of the five-year deal.

The one public sports entertainment company that used to actually pinpoint costs and profits of a streaming service was the WWE Network, which, with a $9.99 price tag, after all costs were factored out, the company was, at least until last year, actually profiting about $2 per head. With a much lower price point, for ESPN+ to garner enough UFC fans to make the $7-10 million per event break even financially looks to be difficult in the long run, and next to impossible in he short run. That may explain all the commercials during the streaming shows, something most sports streaming services have largely avoided.

The big theme of the show was the future of the men’s flyweight division. And with the show after, we still don’t know.

While never officially said, it was certainly implied that Henry Cejudo, the UFC flyweight champion, was fighting for the survival of the division. The scenario of him losing his title to T.J. Dillashaw, making Dillashaw a double champion and then vacating the lighter belt and the division disappearing, was a key part of the storyline of the main event.

A Cejudo win could mess up those plans.

With Joseph Benavidez, Deiveson Figueiredo, and Jussier Formiga all in the running for the flyweight title and Dillashaw now saying he wants a rematch as well, this wouldn’t seem like the right time to drop the division. Still, UFC allowed the biggest star in the history of the division, Demetrious Johnson, to leave, and did so at a time when he would have had the biggest fight of his long UFC career — a trilogy fight with Cejudo — on the table.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changes for Five stars from Saturday’s show.

HENRY CEJUDO — With his 32-second knockout win over Dillashaw, Cejudo (14-2) moved into a category where he may be considered a two-sport legend. Cejudo was one of the youngest Olympic gold medalists in U.S. wrestling history in 2008, and a decade later, has picked up consecutive wins over Johnson and Dillashaw, two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in recent years.

Dillashaw (16-4) complained of an early stoppage and has made it clear he wants the rematch at 125 pounds. Given that the stoppage didn’t seem all that controversial to anyone who wasn’t Dillashaw or Dana White, if there is a rematch, and logic says there should be, it should be Cejudo going after Dillashaw’s title as opposed to Cejudo defending his for a second time.

You could also do Cejudo defending his title against Joseph Benavidez (27-5), since Benavidez has been No. 2 in the division for most of its existence, has a win over Cejudo, and has gone 8-1 since his last title shot in 2013.

But Cejudo earned his own shot at becoming a double champion with the nature of his victory and that’s where things should go next.

DONALD CERRONE — Although never a UFC champion, Cerrone (34-11, 1 NC) now holds three major UFC records after Saturday and has tied for a fourth. Cerrone on Saturday with his win over Alexander Hernandez (10-2), broke his own UFC records for most wins (22), most finishes (16), and set a new record for performance bonuses (16). He’s also tied for most fights in UFC history with 30 (with Jim Miller), and if you throw in his WEC days, you get six more wins, four more finishes, and five more bonuses.

Cerrone expressed interest in fighting Conor McGregor (21-4) when moving back down to lightweight. And who wouldn’t? McGregor puts a spotlight on a fighter like nobody else, and adds zeroes to paychecks. Cerrone was easily the most popular fighter on the show in Brooklyn, and in a game that revolves around charisma, the two are two of the most charismatic fighters in the sport. McGregor, after seeing Cerrone beat Hernandez and the reaction he got, also expressed interest in the matchup.

Such a fight would be one of the biggest-selling non-championship fights in UFC history, a category that the two McGregor vs. Nate Diaz fights currently hold the top spots in. Of course, with McGregor, one never truly knows what he’ll do next or when he’ll want to fight. Cerrone, on the other hand, has all those records because he loves to keep busy. If McGregor isn’t available, the fight to go with is Cerrone vs. Dustin Poirier (24-5). If that happens, get the bonus checks warm.

GREGOR GILLESPIE — Gillespie (13-0) dominated Yancy Medeiros with non-stop wrestling. It wasn’t completely crowd pleasing, but it showed extreme cardio to be able to go that hard without slowing down. Gillespie ultimately finished Medeiros via TKO with one second left in the second round.

At this stage, Gillespie belongs with a name in the division. Kevin Lee (17-4) is a fight that on-paper would be a major test for both men. If Lee isn’t in the cards, Francisco Trinaldo (23-6) would be another viable opponent.

JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ — By all rights, Benavidez should get the next title shot at Cejudo, but a Dillashaw rematch is more pressing.

But the other reality is the flyweight division is still in jeopardy. So many viable fighters being cut from the division at once wasn’t strictly a coincidence.

Unless he is given that title fight, Benavidez should face the winner of the March 23 bout in Nashville between Jussier Formiga (22-5) and Deiveson Figueiredo (15-0) in what would be a No. 1 contenders fight.

JOANNE CALDERWOOD — Calderwood (13-3) ended the hype train of Ariane Lipski (11-4) with a clear decision.

Calderwood asked for a fight with Jessica Eye, but White has said that Eye was in line for a fight with flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko next.

Calderwood’s next fight should be with the winner of the March 23 Nashville fight with Alexis Davis (19-8) vs. Jennifer Maia (15-5-1).