International Incident: UFC PPV Move Tests UK Fans’ Resolve

By: Patrick Auger
Jun 12, 2019

British Telecom Group on June 8 quietly announced that starting with UFC 239 fans in the United Kingdom would have to purchase Ultimate Fighting Championship events through BT Sport Box Office in a traditional pay-per-view format, rather than having them included with the BT Sport channel subscription.

The social media backlash from across the pond was swift, with many fans threatening to cancel their BT Sport package and vowing to illegally stream the upcoming event, which features light heavyweight champion Jon Jones defending his title against Thiago Santos in the main event. Others noted that the move was financially untenable, stating that the amount of BT Sport subscriptions canceled would far outweigh the company’s split of PPV buys from events going forward. However, that idea is based on one huge assumption: that significantly more fans will protest the move than BT Group has already anticipated.

Whenever a company decides to charge for a product or service that was originally free or included in a bundle, it expects retaliation from its customers. Unless there are unknown extenuating circumstances that forced the company into making the move hastily, data was likely gathered from existing customer surveys, market trends and other resources over the course of several months to support the idea of moving UFC cards to BT Sport Box Office. While the exact price point and details of how the pay-per-view revenue will be split between BT Group, the UFC and any other parties involved are not yet known, it can be assured that the UK telecom giant has a threshold of cancellations that would have to be crossed for it to even consider reverting to the old format.

There are a number of factors working against the fans, as well. Long before the ESPN+ deal was in place, fans in North America had to subscribe to a cable, Internet or satellite provider and purchase UFC pay-per-view events on an ad-hoc basis. Requiring BT subscribers to do the same for a significantly lower cost -- right now it’s estimated the event will cost £19.95 or roughly $25 -- isn’t unfathomable, especially since the company doesn’t require a customer to subscribe to the £10-a-month add-on of BT Sport to place the order of the pay-per-view event. While many MMA fans also claim they only subscribe to the sports package add-on for the UFC events, BT Sport also holds exclusive live rights to other popular content such as the UEFA champions league, preventing many customers from canceling the service regardless of what happens with the UFC moving forward.

That being said, all hope is not lost for those who wish to protest the change. Part of the reason UFC PPV events were originally included in the BT Sport subscription at no extra cost was due to the fact that the majority of main event cards start around 3 a.m. local time. Despite the ESPN era pushing UFC Fight Night cards to an earlier start, pay-per-view events have been largely unaffected by the new broadcast deal, and many fans will see the price increase as a reason to turn in for the night rather than power through a card that may not finish until the sun rises. With any price increase, there is also a set number of customers who have already reached their spending limit and simply cannot afford to purchase the new service.

Even if the BT Sport cancellation numbers are in line with what the telecom giant is projecting, should enough fans refuse to purchase UFC pay-per-views, BT Group will be put in a position to reconsider the new offering. Outside of the reasons already mentioned, piracy and illegal streams encourage less scrupulous viewers to boycott buying the card in favor of watching it at no cost. Streaming an event also becomes much easier the day after the card takes place, so it wouldn’t be a stretch for disgruntled customers to go to sleep after the prelims have ended and find a way to watch the PPV portion the following day for free. The switch to a more traditional PPV format was ultimately made to increase revenue, and if the returns aren’t worth the image hit or hassle of dealing with angry subscribers who are canceling their service and finding ways to watch the content regardless, it may be of more value to the company to put all UFC cards back on BT Sport.

In the end, whether or not UFC cards will remain for purchase through BT Sport Box Office or be put back into the BT Sport package will most likely be decided in a game of chicken between fans in the UK and BT Group. Who will blink first?

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