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Listen: UFC’s Lawrence Epstein on ESPN Deal, Endeavor Acquisition and MMA’s Growth Spurt

The UFC is poised for a big year in 2019, starting with the kickoff next month of its broad five-year rights pact with ESPN.

Lawrence Epstein, chief operating officer of UFC parent company Zuffa, LLC, has no shortage of growth ambitions for the sports league that is the marketing leader in the growing arena of mixed martial arts leagues.

In the latest episode of “Strictly Business,” Variety‘s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of entertainment, Epstein discusses his high expectations for a busy 2019. He emphasizes the brand-building “credibility” that the ESPN partnership will confer on UFC and the astronomical earnings power of UFC superstars such as Conor McGregor. Epstein also offers a behind-the-scenes look at the sale process that lead to the company’s $4 billion acquisition by Endeavor in 2016. And he optimistically looks at the expanding field of MMA competitors as a rising tide that should lift all bouts for a sport that boasts a young and highly diverse fan base. 

UFC’s top priority for the coming year is getting its programming alliance with ESPN off to a good start. The deal should pay dividends beyond the $1.5 billion that ESPN has committed to carry UFC events over the next five years on its linear channel and fledgling ESPN Plus streaming service. Having the dominant U.S. sports network as a non-exclusive distributor of UFC’s dozen annual pay-per-view events is expected to rev up sales in the league’s core profit center.

“The credibility of being in partnership with the Walt Disney Company and ESPN has helped us in so many ways — in terms of sponsorship. It’s helped our foreign TV deals,” Epstein said. UFC had been with Fox Sports on the linear TV side in recent years.

Epstein notes that it was the increase in “inbound inquiries” about potential buyout offers in 2015 that prompted UFC’s owners to initiate a formal sale process that lasted nine months and led to the July 2016 acquisition by Endeavor. There was a comfort level built in to the deal because Endeavor’s WME unit had been UFC’s talent rep for a decade.

Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel “had expressed a passion for this business for many, many years,” Epstein said. “The question was financially could they go out and raise the money and get this thing done. … It was the right deal for us at the right time.”

Strictly Business” is Variety‘s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of entertainment. Listen to the podcast below for the full interview, or check out previous episodes featuring FX’s John LandgrafAMC Networks CEO Josh SapanShowtime’s David NevinsSpotify’s Dawn OstroffBankable Productions’ Tyra BanksHBO’s Richard Plepler, and Entertainment Studios’ Byron Allen. A new episode debuts every Tuesday and can be downloaded on iTunesGooglePlayStitcher, and SoundCloud.

(Pictured: UFC star Conor McGregor)

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