In the summer of 2011, with Dana White, Georges St. Pierre, Chuck Liddell, Rashad Evans and Frankie Edgar in attendance, the Ultimate Fighting Championship announced a seven-year distribution contract with Fox Broadcasting Company.
At the time, White, the UFC president, called the deal “the pinnacle” and claimed that the partnership was “going to take this sport to the next level.” For the next seven years that’s what happened, as a larger audience was exposed to the UFC’s brand of violence on Fox, Fuel TV, FX and later, FS1 and FS2.
“[It’s] been incredible. [Fox Sports CEO] Eric Shanks is a very good friend of mine. We’ve built an even stronger relationship over the last seven years,” White said following the promotion’s final UFC on Fox card in Milwaukee on Dec. 15. “And they’ve been very good to us -- to the UFC, to me, to the athletes and to the sport. They helped elevate this thing to unbelievable heights. I can’t thank them enough, and it’s been an absolute honor to work with them.”
The UFC on Fox era officially came to an end on Dec. 29, when an unremarkable heavyweight clash between Walt Harris and Andrei Arlovski concluded the FS1-televised prelims prior to the UFC 232 pay-per-view card. It was hardly a memorable farewell, considering that a heavyweight championship tilt between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos kicked off the relationship in November 2011, but then again, such partnerships rarely conclude with the same flair with which they began.
As significant as the Fox deal was, the world’s premiere mixed martial arts promotion is moving on to even bigger and better things in 2019. In May, ESPN officially acquired the full UFC package. Although its role has in the industry has changed along with viewers’ tastes in recent years, the ESPN brand is still the one most synonymous with all things sports.
The deal is believed to be worth a total of $1.5 billion -- or $300 million per year -- for five years. While it wasn’t the $450 million per year the company was reportedly seeking, it represents a significant increase from the approximately $100 million annually the UFC received from Fox. White couldn’t resist dropping a little of his trademark hyperbole once the terms were revealed.
“When you think about it we haven’t even scratched the surface yet of how big this thing can be,” White said in an interview with Tony Robbins. “We just did a TV deal with ESPN for $1.5 billion for five years. Now the company is worth $7 billion.”
And that doesn’t even mention the added prestige by association.
“Obviously if you look, ESPN wouldn’t cover us not too long ago and now we’re on ESPN,” White said at the UFC Fight Night 130 post-fight press conference. “We’re in business with Disney. It’s probably the most monumental thing that has happened in the history of this company -- in the history of this sport.”
Just as in 2011, when the Fox partnership changed the MMA landscape for good and dominated headlines, the UFC’s new ESPN contract is Sherdog.com’s “Story of the Year” for 2018, surpassing other noteworthy topics such as the rise of the double champion (Hello Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes), the ongoing issue of extreme weight cutting, Jon Jones’ controversial ability to single-handedly move a pay-per-view and the wild post-fight melee between Team Khabib and Team Conor at UFC 229.
The way consumers choose their programming has changed drastically over the past seven years, so it only makes sense that the ESPN’s presentation of the UFC product would be different than Fox’s. A major part of the partnership includes ESPN+, the network’s digital streaming service, which is available for $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year. The content, in many cases, is intended to complement ESPN’s television programming and includes baseball, hockey, boxing college sports, soccer and more. As a standalone entity, however, it is not a replacement for ESPN’s traditional cable channels.
The UFC figures to be a centerpiece of the ESPN+ brand. Of the 30 events the promotion has agreed to air on ESPN platforms, 20 of those will be Fight Nights on ESPN+. The Jan. 19 debut will kick the relationship off in style, with a card at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., headlined by a flyweight title bout pitting reigning champion Henry Cejudo against bantamweight titlist T.J. Dillashaw.
“One of our goals for ESPN+ is to bring sports fans of all genres content they love and are passionate about, and this agreement with UFC is illustrative of exactly that,” said Kevin Mayer, chairman, direct to consumer and international, the Walt Disney Company. “We look forward to providing UFC’s enthusiastic, growing fan base with a wide array of live events and building a lasting relationship with the industry leader in mixed martial arts.”
While hardcore fans seek out their MMA fix on all types of platforms, it will be interesting to see if the casual set gravitates to ESPN+ for UFC content. Finding an event on a subscription streaming service requires advance knowledge and planning. It isn’t nearly the same as aimlessly channel surfing and happening to come across a slugfest between two bloodthirsty heavyweights.
There figures to be no such issues with the 10 other events from the deal, which will air on the ESPN family of networks. The UFC on ESPN debut is set for Feb. 17 in Phoenix, with a card headlined by a heavyweight duel between Velasquez -- the man who helped begin the Fox era -- and Francis Ngannou. Going forward, it will be worth tracking to see how the UFC stacks the various ESPN cards -- because it still remains very much in the pay-per-view business with 12 cards a year scheduled for 2019.
Even though the UFC is changing its broadcast home, viewers can expect the organization to retain control of its production for events.
"The fans are happy with the way our show is presented, and the networks are too, which is why we get these deals done,” White said. “Our production is incredible, we do an amazing job and we'll continue to."
That, of course, doesn’t mean ESPN won’t add its own Touch To UFC programming.
“ESPN’s unparalleled multimedia platform is the perfect home for the UFC and will deliver tremendous value to both parties,” Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN President and Co-Chairman, Disney Media Networks. “UFC fans are passionate and loyal and we plan to bring the full power of ESPN’s live coverage, powerful storytelling and unmatched distribution to serve them in an unprecedented fashion. We can’t wait to get started.”
In 2016, Zuffa sold the UFC to WME-IMG for a reported $4 billion. As the company begins its journey with a new broadcast partner, the future looks bright indeed. Once upon a time, UFC content was limited to VHS scavengers with a savvy eye. Its visibility has grown considerably over the years, from gaining acceptance as a pay-per-view entity to scoring deals with Spike and Fox. Now there is potential for even more growth with its most prominent partner to date.
“Obviously this ESPN deal is going to be massive for us, expose us to millions of people just here in the U.S. that haven’t been exposed to the UFC,” White said. “We’re going to continue to go into markets we haven’t been, we’re going to continue to find the best talent in the world. I love to find up-and-coming talent. I love to find the next guy or girl. Continue to build the sport. That’s it. That’s my focus. It’s not rocket science, it’s nothing crazy. Just continue to do what we do and get bigger and bigger.”