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Back before Reebok, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship still allowed fighters to put individual advertisements on their apparel, there was sometimes a debate about the most desirable spots on the card for sponsors. When fights were shuffled on late notice and a fighter moved from pay-per-view to television or vice versa, the question was which was better for the advertiser. Pay-per-view fights were later on the card, but there was far from unanimity as to whether a fighter was better off on a featured preliminary bout or an early main card bout.
Fighting on television offers a few obvious advantages. A larger number of households will tune in, and those numbers are more readily available than pay-per-view numbers that aren’t reported officially by the UFC. Moreover, Fox Sports 1 and Spike before that made it a point to advertise featured preliminary bouts that were coming up on their networks. Pay-per-view advertising fell more to the UFC itself, and the organization largely focused on the top one or two fights.
On the flipside, pay-per-view also had its advocates. For bigger pay-per-views in particular, fans will often gather together to save money, and thus, the number of people watching grows as people who aren’t going to watch six hours of fighting trickle in. There’s also a prestige to fighting on pay-per-view, which is associated with the biggest fights and top stars. However, in spite of the tendency to order fights based on importance, it wasn’t entirely clear whether one was better off fighting fourth from the top versus sixth from the top or for that matter third from the top versus seventh from the top. This Saturday is unique in the sense that there’s little question as to the best place to be fighting at UFC Fight Night 143, and it’s on the preliminary card.
The first fight card in the ESPN-UFC partnership makes its priority clear: Establish the ESPN Plus streaming service. The UFC is debuting on ESPN, arguably the most prestigious cable television network and certainly the premier sports media brand, and it’s simply an appetizer for the top fights coming afterwards on ESPN Plus. The hope is that ESPN Plus will eventually become a must purchase property for sports fans, but for now, it more closely resembles ESPN when it was a secondary entity, relying on the likes of tennis, hockey and the NBA G League.
It’s almost as if the UFC and ESPN are hiding the fact that the promotion is debuting on ESPN in order to not overshadow ESPN Plus. Back when the UFC debuted on Fox, the thought was fights on Fox were such a big deal that they didn’t want to put on anything but the best. Thus, a “Fight of the Year” contender for a lightweight title shot between Benson Henderson and Clay Guida did not even air. The first Fox fight was instead a heavyweight title fight. The first ESPN fight, by contrast, is scheduled to be Mario Bautista-Cory Sandhagen, two fighters without Wikipedia pages at present. It marks a remarkable shift in philosophy when it comes to kicking off a new television deal.
The UFC’s start on ESPN may be underemphasized, but it’s still much more high profile for the fighters involved and the UFC itself than the ESPN Plus card that will draw a fraction of the viewers and doesn’t hold the prestige of pay-per-view, either. It’s hard to imagine many fans holding ESPN Plus parties and getting together to watch the hottest new stream in the near future. The UFC on ESPN is largely to benefit the UFC; the UFC on ESPN Plus is largely to benefit ESPN Plus. If the UFC helps to build ESPN Plus into a valuable property, it will benefit UFC’s reputation as a company but will do significantly less for the fighters who competed in front of smaller audiences and for lesser notoriety to help one corporate entity satisfy the needs of another.
With this in mind, the clear winners when it comes to the construction of the UFC Fight Night 143 card are Donald Cerrone and rising star Alexander Hernandez. They get to fight in prime time on ESPN in front of a much larger audience, while the likes of T.J. Dillashaw, Henry Cejudo, Greg Hardy, Paige VanZant, Glover Teixeira and Gregor Gillespie wait for their late-night streaming. Given how long Cerrone has been grinding, it’s a fitting benefit for the UFC’s winningest fighter. Hernandez in his own right will have a great opportunity to stake his claim as a top-flight lightweight at just 26 years old.
This isn’t to say that Cerrone’s fight is the biggest on the card, of course. Even if it is watched by fewer fans, Dillashaw-Cejudo is a fight of much greater significance, and that will likely resonate much more with those who watch it. However, Dillashaw and Cejudo will serve to elevate the platform they’re on; Cerrone and Hernandez will be elevated by their placement. The UFC-ESPN partnership is young, but it is already making for some strange realities.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.