Sherdog’s 2019 Story of the Year

By Tristen Critchfield Dec 27, 2019
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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In 2018, the mixed martial arts community could only speculate as to how the partnership between the Ultimate Fighting Championship and ESPN would change the landscape of the sport.

That announcement of that union alone was enough to capture Sherdog.com’s Story of the Year honors for 2018. However, we still didn’t know what the UFC would look like on the Worldwide Leader until Jan. 19, 2019, when the Las Vegas-based promotion hit the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for a card that aired on both ESPN and ESPN Plus, the network’s new streaming service.

From that date until Dec. 21, when the organization concluded its 2019 campaign with UFC Fight Night 165 in Busan, South Korea, the newly-minted agreement loomed large over the rest of the MMA world. In a year where Conor McGregor made headlines for all the wrong reasons (Namely, two sexual assault investigations); Nigeria became an MMA hotbed thanks to the championship exploits of Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya and the UFC antitrust lawsuit allowed the world a more revealing look into the company’s business practices, the UFC-ESPN partnership goes back-to-back, winning Story of the Year for 2019. The only difference is, we get to do more than speculate this time around.

The transition to ESPN did not result in a reduction to the UFC’s frenetic schedule. ESPN, like Fox Sports before it, requires copious amounts of content for its money. Those hoping for a calendar less saturated with events were surely disappointed. All told, the promotion held 23 UFC Fight Night cards — or UFC on ESPN Plus, if you prefer — 12 pay-per-views and seven UFC on ESPN events. Some, as one might imagine, were much more memorable than others.

It began in Brooklyn, where reigning flyweight king Henry Cejudo thwarted T.J. Dillashaw’s bid to become a two-division champion with a 32-second technical knockout victory in the evening’s main event. The ESPN Plus portion of the card also featured the Octagon debut of controversial former NFL star Greg Hardy, who received co-headlining status despite just having just three prior professional bouts to his credit. Hardy’s first UFC foray ended ignominiously, as he was disqualified for landing an illegal knee on opponent Allen Crowder in the second round.

ESPN Plus, for the most part, follows the lead of streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu in that it doesn’t release official viewership figures. However, the network was quick to praise the UFC Brooklyn card for bringing 568,000 new subscribers to the platform prior to the event. The network also revealed that MMA content attracted 1.8 million unique visitors to various ESPN digital platforms.

“All day, and across all ESPN platforms, we collectively demonstrated the promise of what we can do to fulfill our mission of serving a wider array of sports fans,” ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro said.

The preliminary card was deemed to be just as significant as the main draw due to its placement on the primary ESPN network. The UFC wisely put fan-favorite veteran Donald Cerrone in the featured spot, and “Cowboy” delivered in the form of a second-round stoppage of lightweight prospect Alexander Hernandez. That four-bout portion of the card, which aired from 8:15 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET, secured a 1.4 metered market rating — the highest figure for a UFC preliminary Fight Night card since 2013. Those ratings were likely boosted by the Duke-Virginia NCAA basketball game immediately prior that ran long. Rather than moving the start of the prelims to another affiliate, ESPN delayed the broadcast until the game ended.

While ratings were a success, the broadcast had a familiar feel. Other than the presence of outspoken personality Stephen A Smith., very little changed for the initial ESPN foray. Simply put, it was business as usual for the UFC. That was more than enough for UFC President Dana White to declare the debut a success in his typical carnival barker fashion.

“We murdered it tonight,” White said at the post-fight press conference. “It was by far the biggest event on ESPN Plus by a long shot. We killed it tonight. When I tell you we beat expectations, we murdered expectations. The ESPN guys were really pumped. We’re really pumped. It was a really big night for all of us.”

Not every UFC card on ESPN Plus would feature the star power of the card in Brooklyn, but that was never the expectation. However, many fans and media welcomed the earlier start times that ESPN+-streamed events provided. Where a UFC Fight Night on FS1 might run past 1 a.m. ET, UFC on ESPN+ often wrapped up by 11 p.m. ET — or earlier.

The next landmark event of the deal took place a little more than a month later when the inaugural UFC on ESPN card touched down at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix on Feb. 17. Incidentally, Cain Velasquez, who helped usher in the UFC on Fox era in November 2011 era, was once again atop the card. As he did more than seven years ago, Velasquez met an early demise, falling to Francis Ngannou by knockout just 26 seconds into Round 1.

Despite the abbreviated nature of the main event, UFC on ESPN 1 averaged 1.463 million viewers on a Sunday night, making it the highest rated Fight Night card on cable television since UFC Fight Night 81 attracted an audience of 2.288 million for a bantamweight championship clash between Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz in January 2016.

Ultimately, UFC on ESPN 1 would draw the highest ratings of any card on the network in 2019. UFC on ESPN 3 (1.091 million viewers) and UFC on ESPN 7 (1.071 million) were the only other events to break the 1 million average for viewers.

The following month another significant change arrived, as the UFC announced that ESPN Plus would become the sole provider of pay-per-views for the promotion through 2025. (As an aside, the promotion also revealed it was extending its multi-platform agreement with ESPN through 2025).

But, back to the key point: With the new arrangement, the UFC was essentially cutting out the middleman — i.e. Xfinity, DirectTV, Dish, etc. — and receiving a guaranteed sum for its premium events.

“With the addition of UFC PPV events, we are making ESPN Plus an absolute must-have for any fan of the UFC and mixed martial arts,” said Kevin Mayer, Chairman, Direct-to-Consumer & International, The Walt Disney Company. “In less than a year, ESPN Plus has established itself as the leader in direct-to-consumer sports and this new programming agreement adds a significant business to our platform while reinforcing the value and strength of our product and our content lineup.”

The deal was a source of frustration for fans who weren’t interested in forking over the $4.99 ESPN Plus subscription fee in order to be able to purchase a pay-per-view. There was also the concern that casual fans might have more trouble finding the events to purchase them.

On the plus side, the UFC is now less dependent on star power than ever. In the past, a year’s success might be dependent on the presence of a McGregor, Brock Lesnar or Ronda Rousey on multiple cards. With guaranteed revenue in place, that isn’t as much of a concern for Dana White and company. In fact, that deal may very well be why Lesnar never came to terms with the UFC for a blockbuster heavyweight title bout with Daniel Cormier despite setting the stage for the fight the previous summer.

That pay-per-view portion of the agreement began with UFC 236 in April. Initially, pay-per-views were priced at $59.99 — down from $64.99 — to help offset the ESPN+ subscription fee. That will change at the beginning of new year, as UFC 246, along with all subsequent pay-per-view offerings, will return to the original price point.

While there were a few issues with purchasing UFC 236 through the ESPN+ app, both sides were able to get those problems resolved in relatively short order.

“I’m not just saying this because I’m in business with these guys [ESPN],” White said following UFC 236. “You know, you’ve seen me in business with guys that I don’t exactly love being in business with. It happens sometimes. These guys are so good at what they do. They’re so good, they’re so on top of everything. We’ll get the problems that people had tonight fixed. And it’ll only get better.”

As least from the promotion’s perspective, the partnership with ESPN has been a major success. Halfway through the year, White claimed that ratings were up 30 percent. By year’s end, the UFC boss giddily distributed a highlight video to his social media followers accompanied by the proclamation that 2019 was “the biggest year in the company’s history.”

Once a upon a time, it seemed ludicrous to think that an upstart organization like the UFC would ever end up on a platform like ESPN. Now, the promotion is a significant part of the Worldwide Leader brand for the next several years. It’s a partnership that will be tough to top come 2025. Advertisement

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