Journal of the Emerald Specter 94: The UFC-ESPN Deal

The UFC has signed a five year television rights deal beginning in 2019 with ESPN, the quote/unquote “sports leader.”

I’m here to look at what was, look at what is to come, and let you know what I think of the deal.

I’m not going to look all the way back at the UFC before Fox. That is unnecessary and would only pad the word count of this article that I’d like to keep concentrated on what will be coming. I do need to go over the Fox deal, though. Just the “outside perspective” of the deal, not the meat and potatoes.

Fox and the UFC helped to bring a lot of MMA to people who probably wouldn’t have watched any otherwise. There is a reason why the UFC has continued to grow over the past few years, seeing larger audiences on television than they used to get (which were, technically, barely any before Fox). There were lots of Fight Nights on Fox, FS1, and a good chunk of the prelims would also be televised. Exposure was given to a lot of fighters that wouldn’t normally see exposure because they wouldn’t normally be on TV.

The UFC produces about 12 pay per views annually, with another 38 shows on Fox or FS1. The preliminary bouts on the PPVs normally air on FS1 and the main Fox channel has seen bigger headline events as time progressed forward.

Apparently the Fox deal ran out last year, though, and that meant they have just been cruising on autopilot for about a year.

The ESPN deal will have 30 events per year on their platforms, with 10 being on the main “ESPN network” channels and the other 20 being on the new ESPN+ app. This will obviously not affect the PPVs as they will still be “pay per view.” The key to this deal is that 20 events will be on an APP, a streaming service ESPN is attempting to launch with the UFC as it’s big draw.

Here’s where my issue comes in.

I don’t subscribe to cable. I have watched the UFC events on Fox, prelims and full events on FS1, and looked forward to getting more into the UFC over the course of the next couple of years. Since I don’t subscribe to cable, I do not get any ESPN channels… nor am I going to sign up for the ESPN+ app.

How many other people out there are going to do the same?

I think that the ESPN deal will hurt the UFC viewership overall. People aren’t streaming content in the numbers that ESPN would need to really shove home calling their app a success. CBS All Access launched as their guiding light (an unconnected company launching an app primarily showcasing their biggest property, Star Trek: Discovery) and will look at that as what to shoot for in measuring success.

The problem is that CBS All Access isn’t doing as well as they’d hoped, it’s going to miss their subscriber goal, and most of their biggest surge of subscribers came from Trek watchers who unsubscribed after the season was over. Hell, some people are actively signing up for the one week free, binging the whole season and then dumping the service before they have to pay.

I know this because I have friends who have done this.

So, why does ESPN think their endeavor will by any different?

ESPN has largely had their successes tied to the cable model. A chunk, and that is more than a little, of everyone’s cable payment goes to ESPN, a deal I’m not sure how they scored but have been reaping the rewards of for decades. They do have a few sports which they have rights to broadcast, but the largest chunk of ESPN programming are talk shows.

Sports Center is easily their most popular show that isn’t actual sports and it is also the one thing most people can live without. Nothing on ESPN’s list of shows (to include College GameDay, Outside the Lines, E:60, Around the Horn, and Sunday NFL Countdown) is really all that interesting. Bringing those shows to the ESPN+ app will do little to draw anyone to watch it in great numbers.

It’s LITERALLY filler.

Putting the UFC on ESPN+ will draw in a few more people that might not have subscribed otherwise. The large majority of UFC fans, though, are probably going to be doing what I’m going to be doing: not watching those events that aren’t on ESPN proper.

My prediction is that the UFC will take a serious hit in streaming viewership. Sure, ESPN is paying the UFC a lot of money and they may not mind, but after five years of seeing no viewing growth through streaming, the UFC is going to have some serious repair work to do.

Right now, I probably watch 60% of the UFC events on Fox. Some of these are due to when they’re on (early events I tend not to be able to watch) with some of these not being interesting enough for me to watch (I have fighters I’ll go out of my way to watch but don’t necessarily do that just because of the UFC hype machine). I catch about 25% of the UFC PPVs annually, either paying for them myself, which is about 10% of that 25%, and watching at sports bars for the 15%. My viewership, personally, is going to drop with the UFC events not on mainstream ESPN and I’ll probably continue with the same rate of PPVs that I currently do, assuming they are interesting enough for me to keep up my pace.

Am I the only one that is going to be doing this?

I’m friends with a few fans that don’t go out to watch OR pay for any of the PPVs. They ONLY watch the Fox and FS1 events. Those people are going to almost completely stop watching the UFC because none of them will pay for an ESPN app. Will ESPN+ get rights to other sports that can drive up their numbers? Who can say until they announce something?

My thoughts are that the UFC will get out of the ESPN deal when they feel that there is more money to be made with a more mainstream broadcaster. Hell, they may even go with a streaming option of their own, which would still perpetuate their lost viewing numbers, but at least I’d pay for a UFC streaming service that carried most of the events.

The UFC is going to lose fans because of ESPN. They’re going to have to rebuild some of their base once the ESPN deal ends. I just wish they’d seen the longer term effects of this move rather than simply looking at the amount written on the check that ESPN handed them.

No final thoughts today… just disappointment.