FOX’s Exclusive Negotiating Window With the UFC Has Expired – Now What?

UFC MMA Dana White disputes Demetrious Mighty Mouse Johnson's claims
Dana White. Credit: Dave Mandel/

The UFC came into its own during its time on FOX and FOX Sports. Now, with its seven year deal coming to an end and an exclusive period for renegotiation with FOX over, could we see the UFC jump ship to another network?

Seven years (give or take) seems to have just flown by, and next year, the current television deal betoween FOX and the UFC will expire. It seems like just yesterday that the world’s premiere mixed martial arts promotion jumped from its original home on Spike TV to the “big leagues” over at FOX, and while there have been some missteps, the deal has proven to be a mutually beneficial one.

Sure, the promotion got off to a rocky start. Opting to air just one fight on its original UFC on FOX broadcast proved to be short-sighted when Junior Dos Santos knocked out Can Velasquez in all of 64 seconds back in November 2011. Since then, however, the promotion has put on a number of memorable Fight Night and UFC on FOX cards.

Is that enough to keep the UFC where it is? Good question. There are a lot of factors at play: cost, familiarity, ratings, a lack of available sports properties, and a potential shift in how UFC shows are produced.

When the UFC signed its original deal with FOX, it was reportedly worth roughly $100 million per year over seven years per this ESPN report. The network got the UFC on FOX shows, Fight Nights to air on Fuel TV (and later on the Fox Sports channels), The Ultimate Fighter, and additional programing like UFC Tonight.

The upside of the deal for the UFC, aside from the financials, was a big network home. Image played no small part, not to mention the fact that the UFC retained control over production, and now had a one-stop shop for all its programming in the U.S. Remember when TUF aired on Spike TV, but there were still UFC on Versus events?

FOX was the big time, and the UFC has been a modest success for the network. That doesn’t mean, however, that FOX is about to pay through the nose for UFC content. Especially when the promotion is looking to offload production costs onto its network partner.

A year ago, Sports Business Daily was suggesting that new UFC owners WME|IMG were looking in the neighborhood of $450 million a year for the American broadcast rights to UFC programming. That’s more than a three-fold increase from the current deal, and is no doubt a number floated with the $4.4 billion sale of the promotion in mind. In short, WME needs to pay back the loans it took out to purchase the promotion, and the coming TV deal is a big part of that. The company is also thinking long term: a 10 year deal is what they’re looking for.

Is the UFC worth that, to FOX or anyone else? Maybe, maybe not, but lets not assume that the asking price will be the final number. Still, it’s likely whatever network the promotion winds up on will pay more. That’s despite the fact that numbers for The Ultimate Fighter and some UFC live events are down.

Why pay more for (potentially) less?

For starters, a lack of available sports properties. As streaming services, DVRs, and the like have taken hold, live sporting events have remained the one sure-fire way to draw a live audience. The NHL signed a 10 year deal with NBC in 2011, the NBA extended its TV deal with ESPN and TNT in 2014 for nine 9 years, and the NFL extended its TV deal for 9 years in 2011. That means that if you want a big live sports property, right now, the UFC is your ticket.

Second, a number of sports networks have seen drops in subscribers in recent years. Fox Sports is down five million from 2013, and ESPN’s viewership woes are no secret — it’s believed to have lost over ten million viewers in recent years. Bucking the trend, NBC SN is up in subscribers, and boasts roughly the same number as Fox Sports. For Fox Sports, it’s a matter of retaining subscribers; for the others, growing their subscriber base. UFC fans have proven that, if nothing else, they’re a loyal bunch.

On the ratings side, well, Bellator bested the UFC in the ratings at the end of September, when Bellator 183 topped UFC Japan, but that’s a rarity; the UFC was airing on Friday, on FXX rather than Fox Sports. The most recent episode of The Ultimate Fighter (as of the time of writing) drew 220,000 viewers (numbers per MMA Payout), but at the same time, ratings depend a lot on what the UFC is going up against (college football, the NFL, NBA, etc.) and who’s on a given card. TUF has been down year after year, but Holly Holm at UFC on FOX 20 gave the promotion its best Summer ratings in its history with FOX in 2016.

Ultimately, what this really boils down to is how many networks are interested in making a serious bid. Showtime, Turner, and ESPN are potential suitors, but ESPN’s current difficulties are a factor. Despite that, the UFC seems to have cozied up to them of late, with Dana White appearing on the network more than ever before. Turner? It lacks a sports channel, while Showtime, backed by CBS, has been out of the MMA game for a while. What about Spike, the UFC’s old home? Well, it is owned by Viacom, who also own Bellator MMA.

NBC could make a stab at acquiring the rights to the UFC, and they have both the outlet (NBC SN, plus “big” NBC) to mimic the current UFC/FOX deal, and the money. They also have a TV deal with the PFL, but that would not stand in the way.

Then there’s the digital option. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Amazon (who took a shot at snagging NFL rights) and Facebook are among potential suitors. Whether that would make sense given the UFC already has its own streaming service in Fight Pass is a consideration, but there’s no doubt both companies have the deep pockets required.

In the end, however, it’s more likely that the UFC stays put on FOX, who will wait to see what other bids come in before finalizing a deal. Letting the UFC slip away would leave a huge hole in the Fox Sports lineup, after all. It’s easier to hold on to what you have, after all, than to replace it, as long as the promotion doesn’t price itself out of the market.