The UFC — in a major jump to digital away from traditional pay TV — inked an expanded pact with ESPN under which all of the mixed martial arts promoter’s pay-per-view events will be available exclusively on ESPN+ in the U.S. for the next seven years.
Under the agreement, the ESPN+ subscription streaming service will be the only way for MMA fans in America to purchase and watch the UFC’s 12 annual PPV tentpole events through 2025. The deal kicks off with UFC 236 on April 13, featuring a lightweight title fight between Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier. UFC will continue to sell its PPV events to commercial establishments (like bars and restaurants) but individual fans will need to be ESPN+ paying customers to buy the pay-per-views going forward.
UFC, majority owned by Endeavor, originally struck a $1.5 billion, five-year deal last year with the Disney-owned sports programmer, which nabbed the TV rights from Fox Sports. Under the expanded agreement, ESPN’s overall multiplatform rights have also been extended through 2025. ESPN is punching up its relationship with UFC less than three months after going live with the MMA outfit’s content at the start of 2019.
UFC president Dana White, asked in an interview why the exclusive PPV arrangement with ESPN+ was the right move, countered, “Why is it not the right move? Cord-cutting is real. It’s scary the amount of subs dropping every year. Why wouldn’t I want to be aligned with the biggest, baddest sports company in the world?”
White added, “The timing couldn’t be better for us. Now it’s a one-stop shop at ESPN.” Endeavor president Mark Shapiro said the expanded deal “validates the power and fanbase of the sport,” noting UFC has garnered twice as many viewers on ESPN in 2019 versus the same time period last year on Fox Sports 1.
Financial terms of the deal aren’t being disclosed. UFC generated well over $700 million for the 12 months ended March 31, 2018, per estimates from credit-rating agency Moody’s, with a big chunk of that coming from PPV buys.
Clearly, both parties expect the exclusive ESPN+ PPV distribution will result in a bigger haul — even as ESPN cuts pricing on UFC pay-per-view events.
Existing ESPN+ subscribers will be able to purchase UFC PPV events for $59.99 each. That’s compared with UFC’s previous pricing of $64.99 per PPV. In addition, ESPN is rolling out a new bundled option, offering new ESPN+ subscribers 12 months of the service with one UFC PPV event for $79.99 ($30 over the baseline annual plan). And ESPN says it may explore other pricing and packaging options in the months ahead.
The base ESPN+ subscription package will remain $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year, which already offers 20 UFC on ESPN+ Fight Night events and hundreds of hours of other UFC programming, in addition to thousands of other sporting events and original shows.
Disney was eager to pin down the exclusive ESPN+ PPV deal, which was officially clinched on Monday, because it sees the MMA content as a major driver for ESPN+ subscriptions: When the UFC debuted on the streaming service on Jan. 19, ESPN+ signed up 568,000 new subscribers in two days. Last month, Disney said ESPN+ had topped 2 million subscribers, less than a year after its April 2018 launch.
“The extremely successful launch of the UFC on ESPN+ emphatically demonstrated the collective power and scale of ESPN and DTCI [Disney’s Direct-to-Consumer & International division], and we couldn’t be more excited to continue to drive passionate fans to these new pay-per-view experiences,” Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN president and co-chair of Disney Media Networks, said in announcing the new agreement.
ESPN execs argue that ESPN+ is now an absolute must-have for any fan of the UFC and mixed martial arts. “The addition of this content gives ESPN+ subscribers access to the biggest events from UFC,” said Russell Wolff, executive VP and GM of ESPN+. “This is a place where UFC fans will be well served.”
Previously, UFC PPV events have been available through U.S. cable, satellite and telco TV operators including Comcast and DirecTV, as well as via UFC.TV and Amazon Prime Video. Now ESPN+ is the only game in town for UFC’s pay-per-view.
Lawrence Epstein, UFC chief operating officer, said an attractive piece of the PPV deal was that ESPN will be sharing “more robust” data about who’s buying pay-per-view events. “It’s really unlike anything we’ve had with legacy distributors like Comcast and DirecTV,” he said. “The amount of data we were getting on buys from the cable industry was pretty much zero.”
UFC PPV events sold through ESPN+ will include all bouts on the main event fight cards and will be streamed in both English and Spanish. Preliminary bouts for all UFC PPV events will continue to air nationally on ESPN (English) and ESPN Deportes (Spanish) under the original 2018 agreement. In addition, early preliminary bouts will be available to all ESPN+ subscribers, as well as on UFC Fight Pass.
With the newly expanded ESPN deal, UFC’s digital properties (UFC.TV, UFC.com and the UFC app) will continue to serve as a consumer entry point for PPV events but will redirect users to espnplus.com/ppv to purchase and watch the events. Fans must purchase the PPV events on the web, and then can stream it via the web or on the ESPN app. Pay-per-view access to UFC 236, to be held at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, will go on sale April 8 on ESPN+.
ESPN+ is available as an integrated part of the ESPN app on major mobile and connected-TV devices and platforms, including Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Apple iOS, Android, Roku, Google Chromecast, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Samsung Smart TVs.
The UFC is just one pillar of the programming on ESPN+, which starting this year will also add MMA fights from the upstart Professional Fighters League. The over-the-top service additionally features hundreds of MLB and NHL games, Top Rank boxing, international soccer, college sports events, Grand Slam tennis, rugby and cricket, and the full library of ESPN’s “30 for 30” films.
UFC produces more than 40 live events annually across the globe and has TV deals serving over 160 countries and territories, with programming available to 1.1 billion television households worldwide. UFC Fight Pass digital subscription service, aimed at hardcore fans, provides content above and beyond what’s available via ESPN and ESPN+, including exclusive live events, original content, and thousands of fights available on-demand.
Pictured above: Tyron Woodley (l.) and Kamaru Usman in their welterweight title fight at UFC 235 in Las Vegas.