UFC & ESPN: A Marriage Made in Heaven

After a bitter split with Fox, UFC finds themselves in unfamiliar territory

The UFC’s six-year television deal with ESPN, announced last fall, was perfect for both parties.

For the UFC, it was a chance to make the leap from beleaguered FS1, a cable network that the UFC ostensibly launched and built by themselves, to ESPN, the dominant brand in sports and cable. UFC now finds themselves alongside the NFL and MLB and other prestige sports organizations.

FS1 was quite literally UFC and nothing else.

Here’s what the typical schedule looked like:

— A morning show featuring Twitter trolls in human form attempting to out-moron each other, usually at volumes ranging from you’re giving me a migraine please stop talking and I would do almost anything to hit that man with a baseball bat all the way to I would give anything for someone to hit me with a baseball bat. And all before most of us even had our first sip of coffee. I don’t know who the worst non-criminal person in sports is at the moment, but Skip Bayless has to be high on the list.

— The middle of the day was packed with hours and hours of the kind of sports programming picked up for pennies on the dollar, maybe at an auction for unwanted television shows.

— And then there was UFC programming. Hours and hours of UFC. Live UFC. Taped UFC. And Fox kept adding more UFC to the schedule, because UFC was the only thing worth a shit on FS1. It was the only thing people watched. You could turn on FS1 in the middle of any sleepless night and have a real good shot at seeing some random fight from the past. Usually, it would involve Anderson Silva.

That was pretty much the FS1 schedule for the entirety of their deal with the UFC. It was no-viewers land. Nobody watched FS1 unless the UFC was on. Luckily for FS1, UFC was on all the time. Even the Ultimate Fighter, which has devolved into a terrible reality show watched by maybe 100,000 people, was a bright spot in the lineup.

Was it any wonder that Lorenzo Fertitta started looking for a new partner long before the Fox deal was set to expire? Three years before the Fox deal’s conclusion—and long before he’d decided to sell the company and get the fuck out while the getting the fuck out was good—Fertitta had made up his mind to leave.

Fertitta and the UFC weren’t happy with Fox. But there were other issues, too.

Dana wears out his welcome at Fox

The feeling was mutual on Fox’s side. Executives grew sick of Dana White in record time. White’s yelling voice was a constant presence on the phones in Fox’s office, with the UFC president often calling to berate Eric Shanks (now CEO of Fox Sports) over one perceived slight after another.

White has historically viewed media outlets as partners, as extensions of his marketing team. With Fox Sports, White went even further as a micromanager, paying close attention to headlines and content, regularly calling to demand that changes be made.

White claims to not read any of the sources that report on his business. This is a lie. He is a voracious consumer of anything written about his company. Each morning, the UFC’s public relations department prints and delivers to him a sort of presidents daily brief that highlights good and bad coverage of his company from both mainstream and dedicated MMA. When I wrote critical pieces, I could always count on a nasty text message the next day. Like clockwork.

At the UFC’s old offices, in a corner of White’s gaudy central office—a testament to the things rich people buy because they are rich, White had a closet-sized office. The meetings happened out in the main office, where White’s guests/opponents might feel intimated by, say, the Desert Eagle and 50 caliber sniper rifle gifted to him by Caesars in an effort to keep him from taking his blackjack money-losing and $10,000 tips elsewhere. In the office was an old desktop computer, hooked up to an ancient CRT monitor. That’s where he spent copious amounts of time reading every major MMA news publication and trawling the Underground forums in search of people he could make fun of.

This isn’t a surprise. After all, White has regularly barred reporters with whom he has disagreements from attending his events, and not just temporarily; Josh Gross, perhaps one of the best true journalists to ever work in the sport, still can’t get a credential to UFC events. Jonathan Snowden, who has forgotten more about mixed martial arts than White has ever known, remains banned despite White admitting to UFC VP of public relations Lenee Breckenridge that he had no idea why Snowden was on the shitlist. But White refused to change his mind, saying there was probably a good reason he was banned in the first place, even if he couldn’t remember what it was, and so it stuck.

White also blacklists certain journalists and outlets from participating in the traditional UFC-monitored phone interviews with fighters. And he once flew on Zuffa’s private jet to the headquarters of Gannett, the owners of USA Today and MMAjunkie, in an attempt to get a Junkie writer fired after a recent story by the author pissed him off.

Fertitta is now gone and enjoying the fruits of his labor, which is billions of dollars and apparently a regular old yacht. Hopefully he has spent some time learning the difference between a tweet and a direct message. The UFC was sold to WME-IMG, which became Endeavor, and White stuck around despite insisting he couldn’t do the job without his best friend Lorenzo.

Turns out, he’s got a new friend, and that friend is named A Percentage of UFC’s Yearly Profits. \

The UFC debuted on ESPN in January, and one thing is clear. If you thought Dana White had some real strong feelings for Conor McGregor back in the halcyon Ferrari days, it’s nothing compared to the way White is feeling about ESPN right now. White seems to love ESPN more than even Ronda Rousey, or maybe even blackjack.

And who can blame him? ESPN’s broadcasts are far more professional than anything Fox Sports ever did. In terms of shoulder programming alone—the hype shows and character profiles and SportsCenter appearances—there’s zero comparison between the two. The production is better and more creative. The increased usage of Megan Olivi, who is enormously talented and will someday be a household name in a real sport, is a particular highlight.

Our ears aren’t tormented by Face the Pain anymore, thank you baby Jesus, hallelujah. A lot of the ESPN shows start an hour earlier, which is great for an old man like me. Joe Rogan is still doing his job, but I guess you can’t win them all.

ESPN has assembled the best collection of media talent in the business, from Ariel Helwani (who has transcended this sport to become our Adam Schefter and Howard Cosell in one package), professional personality Chael Sonnen, the startlingly handsome and underrated super-reporter Brett Okamoto and veteran Jeff Wagenheim, who hides his immense talent and wisdom behind a Hawaiian shirt gimmick.

Everything ESPN does regarding the UFC works in perfect sync. ESPN breaks every news story. The live events feel like they mean more, even if they’re still featuring a bunch of people you’ve never heard of, because it’s ESPN. And ESPN clearly is invested in making new UFC stars for a mainstream audience.

That’s because they are invested.

Heavily.

The ESPN/UFC relationship was so hunky-dory that, after less than three months together, they decided to extend the partnership an extra two years. The stunning part of the news, however, was ESPN’s decision to make ESPN+ the exclusive home for UFC pay per views. You can’t buy them on DirecTV or your cable outlet anymore. You have to have an ESPN+ subscription—which frankly is a steal at $5 a month—in order to even purchase the events, which still cost $59.95. And you have to stream them.

There’s a downside to this, of course. High speed internet is everywhere these days, but it is not everywhere. Viewers with slow bandwidth are now either forced to watch a streaming event with loads of buffering, or they can go to a sportsbar. There’s no other legal option. The UFC considered this, I’m sure, but then they considered how much money ESPN was willing to give them in order to gain those exclusive rights.

The money won.

The UFC took the average profit they pulled in from pay per views for the past three years, including the massive Conor McGregor fights, and that’s the check ESPN wrote in order to secure exclusive rights. What was once a deal worth $150 million per year is now conservatively estimated to be at least double that, if not triple or more.

UFC pay per view numbers will plummet because there is only one way to order PPV’s, and not every household is capable of utilizing the technology required to do so. There will be issues with the streaming itself, as there were during The UFC 2326 launch of the product—I should note here that my stream was flawless and even better than cable or satellite, but I have ridiculously fast internet and understand there were hundreds of people with less-enjoyable experiences.

But it doesn't matter. Not anymore. The UFC is guaranteed their money. They’re getting paid no matter how bad their events are or how few people tune in or how many times their stream shits the bed. ESPN is now the promoter. They’re the ones who need big subscriber numbers and little churn. They’re the ones who need UFC’s top stars to continue fighting in marquee matchups. ESPN will market the hell out of these events because they have to. Because they are on the hook for a ton of money.

The UFC/ESPN deal is still in its infancy. The wheels might eventually fall off if ratings decline even more, or if Conor McGregor truly goes off the deep end and causes ESPN the kind of embarrassment they can’t overlook the way they do with Greg Hardy. We’ve seen every UFC deal ever, from partners to athletes, start at love at first sight before deteriorating into ugliness. That may happen one day.

I doubt it, though. I don’t believe ESPN is going to take mixed martial arts to the next level, because I believe the UFC reached that level years ago and won’t ever go beyond it.

We may love fighting, but to love fighting and violence is not normal. We all have something a little wrong with us, or else we would not find enjoyment in this stuff.

I’m not sure even ESPN, with all their sheen and gloss, can apply enough lipstick to make this pig anything but hideous to the rest of the world. The best we can hope for is they make the experience just a little better for those of us who can’t seem to pry ourselves away.

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