As the existing deal between the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Fox nears its end, there has been a ton of speculation and rumors as to where the leader in mixed martial arts will call home in the near future.
Tuesday afternoon, Variety reported that a deal combining the forces of ESPN and a renewed Fox is in the works. This deal is supposed to pump up to $380 million annually into the promotion which is well into the $300-$400 million range that was being sought in the ongoing negotiations. While this has not been made official and many important details are not available as of this writing, there are several elements of this report that suggest the new broadcasting deal is likely to be more of the same.
According to the report, ESPN, branded “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” will have 15 or more events exclusively available for their newly-launched ESPN+ platform. The UFC has historically been extremely accommodating of ESPN but has received very little in return. The flagship station very rarely covers MMA beyond the occasional ticker showing results of events at the bottom of the screen. Over the years, the resources devoted to MMA by ESPN have dwindled significantly, as staff cuts reduced the number of journalists reporting on the sport, and the network phased out its lone desk analysis show, “MMA Live.” However, on multiple occasions, Dana White has gone on the station to break news. That relationship was still in place even after Fox became the UFC’s broadcasting partner in 2011. Instead of relying on his company’s actual paid-for place on television, White chose to hit the airwaves on ESPN to announce the lineup change after Rafael dos Anjos was replaced by Nate Diaz to fight Conor McGregor at UFC 196, as well as Georges St. Pierre’s return versus Michael Bisping. So much has been given with so little in return. The proposed ESPN+ offer continues this trend.
Instead of a prominent placement on the widely available and respected main channel, befitting a huge brand in the sports world, the UFC may now be placed on what is essentially a throwaway streaming service that specializes in out-of-market regular season games. Even with the ESPN logo in the bottom corner of the screen at UFC Fight Night 646, the promotion will play second fiddle to the more preferred sports on the network’s agenda.
Once again, the UFC will be tasked with building a fledgling channel. However, this time there will be no clear step up for the visibility of the promotion. When Spike was home to UFC content, both companies needed each other. Spike was struggling to stay afloat as the unofficial men’s network while the UFC was in desperate need of a TV deal. When they entered into the partnership with Fox, the promotion wanted an upgrade to network television and the prestige of mainstream acceptance, while Fox sought a more prominent place in sports media. As a result, UFC-related programming became the staple of newly minted cable TV outlets while the expected debate and analyst shows featured MMA topics alongside stick-and-ball sports, in addition to multiple annual events featured on Fox’s mainstream broadcast TV channel. However, this week’s report mentioned nothing of ESPN itself carrying any events. Without any fights slated for the flagship channel, what’s the point of allying itself with a brand that has treated the UFC, and MMA as a whole, as nothing more than a red-headed step child at Thanksgiving dinner? The promotion would simply be used to bring some eyeballs to the ESPN+ platform as an experiment without much guarantee of growth and exposure.
Another noticeable flaw in the supposed plans is that once again, a paywall has been set up between MMA fans and UFC content. To follow MMA in its current incarnation, you need access to multiple platforms. A cable subscription is necessary. In order to have access to channels featuring MMA, upgrade packages are often needed, as many service providers don’t include Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2 on their basic plans. For cord cutters, a streaming service is needed in addition to an internet connection. Like landline cable, additional upgrades add to the price. UFC Fight Pass requires an additional fee to watch early preliminary bouts. All of this is in addition to the existing pay-per-view price tag. With the $4.99 per month fee for ESPN+, the strain on the MMA fan’s wallet increases. At least in the United States, one of the great appeals to the more traditional popular sports, such as the NFL, is easy access. Every Sunday morning during football season, no matter where you are in the country, there are multiple football games available over free broadcast stations. Fan bases develop regardless of income, and the NFL has been reaping all of the benefits for generations. In contrast, boxing lost a significant portion of its dedicated fans when regular network broadcasts became few and far between as pay-per-view and premium cable became the central locations for big name fights. Adding additional paywalls will only succeed in alienating viewers without the disposable income or the willingness to spend it.
The worst part of the reported bid is that this would in no way address the glaring problem with the UFC schedule: oversaturation. The constant revolving door of nameless, faceless Reebok styled fighters, poor broadcast pacing, and Metro PCS commercials would continue. At least 15 events are committed to ESPN+ with only a slight reduction in event obligations for Fox. It is hard to picture Endeavor reducing the number of pay-per-views, and assuming that that logic prevails, don’t expect the “nearly every week is fight week” tradition to be broken. This holds especially true if there will still be Fight Pass-exclusive events as well. That means star power being stretched thin, the continued redefinition of “elite-level talent,” and events that are three hours longer than games in other sports.
Perhaps when details are confirmed the alarm bells will stop ringing. The prospect of some iteration of the Dana White Contender Series replacing the everlasting struggle of “The Ultimate Fighter” is certainly good news, though at the moment it is not clear whether this is part of the rumored ESPN/Fox deal or of the rumored ESPN/NBC deal. In spite of the aforementioned drawbacks, a bigger online presence may be a good sign of looking ahead to the future of television. Maybe Endeavor will in fact reduce the PPV load, as a previous rumor involving NBC indicated. Maybe production changes will give the broadcast a new look and feel that could have more general appeal. Maybe the number of bouts per event will be reduced to ensure better pacing and concentration of fighters with name value. Maybe ESPN will give the UFC the occasional event on their more accessible channel lineup instead of the online version of “ESPN 8: The Ocho.”
Unfortunately, the initial reports don’t inspire hope for that outcome. While the financial goals of the TV deal will be met, will it be enough to keep everything above water in the long term, beyond the expiration date of the new deal? The current trend of declining ratings, nearly nonexistent event-by-event promotion, and monotony signals a significant need for change. Considering what has been reported so far, it does not look like that needed change is imminent.