×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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)

More Biz

  • Here’s How Much Money 10 Artists

    Here’s How Much Money 10 Artists Are Owed by PledgeMusic

    For eight years, PledgeMusic was a success story: A direct-to-fan platform where artists worked directly with their audiences to fund their albums, tours and all stripes of merchandise, with fans able to purchase everything from custom guitar picks to private concerts. Yet last June, Variety broke the news that the company is struggling to pay [...]

  • Korea's CJ CGV Switches Turkey CEOs

    Korea's CJ CGV Switches Turkey CEOs as It Battles With Local Industry

    Yeun Seung-ro has been appointed as CEO of CGV Mars Entertainment, the Korean-owned company that operates Turkey’s largest cinema chain. He replaces Kwak Dong Won, another veteran of the CJ-CGV group. The change of personnel may reflect two ongoing battles within the Turkish film industry. CJ-CGV, which bought Mars for some $650 million in 2016. [...]

  • China Video Streaming Giant iQIYI Loses

    Chinese Video Giant iQIYI Loses $1.3 Billion in 2018

    Chinese video streaming firm iQIYI lost over $1.3 billion in 2018, as revenues and subscriber numbers ballooned. The deepening losses reflected ever higher spending on original content production. Announcing its first full-year financials since a March IPO that launched it onto the NASDAQ, iQIYI said that it lost $1.3 billion (RMB9.1 billion) last compared with [...]

  • Lisa Borders Time's Up

    Time's Up CEO Resigned After Son Was Accused of Sexual Assault

    Time’s Up has announced in a statement posted to Instagram that its former president and CEO Lisa Borders, who resigned Feb. 18, did so after her son was accused of sexual assault in a “private forum.” “Within 24 hours, Lisa made the decision to resign as President and CEO of Time’s Up and we agreed [...]

  • Louis Tomlinson Signs With Arista (EXCLUSIVE)

    Louis Tomlinson Signs With Arista (EXCLUSIVE)

    One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson has signed with Arista, sources tell Variety. While the singer was formerly linked with Epic Records in 2017, he is signed directly to Simon Cowell’s Syco label and will move within the Sony Music family to Arista. Tomlinson teased a new single on Feb. 2, posting on Twitter, “Just heard the [...]

  • Jussie Smollett

    Jussie Smollett's Bail Set at $100,000, Must Surrender Passport

    UPDATED: A Chicago judge set a $100,000 bond for Jussie Smollett on Thursday, as the “Empire” actor made his first court appearance. Smollett faces one felony count of filing a false police report. Police allege that Smollett staged a Jan. 29 attack, telling detectives that he was accosted by two men who used racial and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content