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The Business of MMA: UFC’s worth to ESPN during the pandemic, Bryce Mitchell’s camo journey, The Suga Show

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UFC 249 Ferguson v Gaethje
Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje
Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

MMA Fighting explores contract negotiations, signings, television ratings, pay-per-views, sponsorship deals, as well as the managers and agents working in the sport. How did deals get made? Who got signed and how did it happen? Those topics and much more will be covered as we take a deep dive into “The Business of MMA.”

Pandemic Ratings

When the coronavirus pandemic really took hold in March, just about every business that depended on sports took a major hit.

The NBA season was suspended. The NHL shut down. Major League Baseball delayed the start of their regular season.

For an all-sports network like ESPN, this was a catastrophe unlike anything ever witnessed before. The network got so desperate for live sports that ESPN started broadcasting cornhole games – it was one of a few socially distant activities that could still take place during a pandemic.

UFC President Dana White was defiant in the face of public pressure to keep his organization shut down. While the promotion did ultimately cancel or otherwise postpone several cards, he promised the UFC would return before any other major sports league, and he would do it safely.

The first card back was UFC 249 on May 9 from an empty VyStar Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. The event was headlined by an interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, and neither of them had been a proven pay-per-view star. That perception was soon shattered.

The event reportedly sold around 700,000 pay-per-views through ESPN+, a huge win for the promotion. On the safety front, things didn’t go off without a hitch; Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza had to be removed from the card after testing positive for COVID-19. But the UFC “bubble” largely appeared to work with everybody involved with the show undergoing numerous tests during fight week.

Since then, several fighters have been pulled off of cards due to positive COVID-19 tests. But the UFC has avoided large outbreaks while setting the standard for how a sports league can promote an event during a global pandemic.

As one of the only major sports producing content, the UFC’s ratings have flourished with flagship shows on ESPN routinely landing in the top five for viewership on a Saturday night; several cards have landed at No. 1 overall. Pay-per-view events have generated big profits as well, with UFC 251 reportedly selling around 1.3 million buys, which would make it one of the most significant cards in the history of the organization. UFC 252 reportedly sold around 500,000 pay-per-views worldwide, still a far better number than the average UFC card prior to the pandemic.

Perhaps more than anything else, White’s decision to reopen has really paid off for ESPN. The Disney-owned company continues to top Saturdays ratings — a night routinely ruled by NBA games or college football. Meanwhile, UFC on ESPN+ events have helped the fledgling streaming service add a huge number of subscribers in recent months.

According to a recent investors call with Disney stockholders, ESPN+ had a total of 8.5 million as of the third quarter this year. At that time a year ago, ESPN+ only boasted 2.4 million subscribers, meaning it added a whopping 6.1 million subscribers.

During the call, Disney executives paid credit to the UFC’s booming pay-per-view business. While the entertainment giant’s overall bottom line still took a massive hit thanks to the arrival of the coronavirus, the UFC helped the streaming service drove third-quarter revenue, helping the mouse house to stop some of the bleeding its endured in recent months.

Of course, the UFC has stiffer competition now. Sports leagues have restarted, and the NBA playoffs have once again led in the ratings. The NFL season is also expected to kick off in September.

That said, the UFC boasts an impressive line-up of pay-per-views for the remainder of 2020, including a highly anticipated middleweight title fight between Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa in September, not to mention the long-awaited return of Khabib Nurmagomedov as he faces off with Justin Gaethje in October.

The UFC initially signed a $1.5 billion deal with ESPN in 2018 before later adding more time to their contract along with exclusivity for their pay-per-views to go through ESPN+. It was a huge moment for the UFC. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, ESPN might owe the promotion a lot more when it’s all said and done.

Dana White Gets Political

After first appearing at the Republican National Convention in 2016, White will once again support President Donald Trump’s re-election bid when he appears at the convention on Thursday night. The UFC executive is scheduled to appear on the final night of the convention, which closes with a speech from President Trump.

While the UFC president considers Trump a longtime friend and ally of his business, White also puts his money behind the candidate. In November 2019, he contributed $1 million to the America First Action super PAC, which directly supports Trump and his candidacy. In 2017, White also contributed $29,600 to the Republican National Committee.


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

More than a year ago, rising featherweight star Bryce Mitchell asked the UFC’s apparel partner, Reebok, to make him camouflage shorts that he could wear inside the octagon. He kept asking, and yet after two additional fights, the former Ultimate Fighter contender still didn’t get his wardrobe request.

That might all be changing soon.

According to Mitchell’s manager Matt Weibel, a company called RealTree is currently designing a pair of authentic camouflage shorts in coordination with Reebok that will hopefully be approved in time for his next fight.

While it all depends in timing, Weibel hopes that Mitchell will finally get to rock his camo shorts when he walks to the cage for his next fight.

“The word from Reebok is that the shorts have been in production and sent to the UFC for final approval,” Weibel told MMA Fighting. “The hope is that the UFC approves them in time for his next bout, which should be announced any day.

“RealTree has been amazing throughout this entire process and has done everything in their power to make this happen with Reebok.”

The timing of the news comes as the UFC’s partnership with Reebok enters its twilight phase. After six years, the union will dissolve after the promotion inks a new long-term deal with Venum beginning in April 2021. The designers over there might want to get a jump start on Mitchell’s new shorts.

The Suga Show

Sean O’Malley may have come up short in his fight against Marlon “Chito” Vera at UFC 252, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the most talked-about fighters on the planet, much less stunted the growth of his personal business.

Ahead of that event, O’Malley officially launched his own apparel “Suga Show” after he made $20,000 on the sale of a limited edition jersey that he told MMA Fighting sold out in 39 seconds.

While it’s unknown how well his new apparel line is doing, O’Malley made the decision to design and launch his own merchandise after he complained about the lack of money he was making from sales of Reebok gear using his name and likeness. The end result has led to O’Malley introducing his own apparel line. Additionally, he plans to launch his own strain of marijuana and a new signature boxing gloves that are just about to drop. The limited edition gloves produced by Sanabul will be released on Sept. 1 for a $150 price tag.

After Conor McGregor built himself into a global business, making millions off a signature whiskey he branded and built, O’Malley appears to be the next superstar. O’Malley always makes it a point that fighting will come first for him, but it’s clear he’s got a head for business.

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