UFC to ESPN: What The Change Means for the Future of MMA

UFC 206 venue
Toronto's Air Canada Centre, prior to UFC 206 Credit: Jay Anderson/Cageside Press

The UFC will air exclusively on ESPN starting in 2019, but what does the move mean for the future of the sport of mixed martial arts?

Earlier, it was reported that ESPN would replace FOX as the new broadcast partner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  With FOX since 2011, the UFC exploded in popularity.  Events became part of regular network programming throughout the year and stars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey brought more attention to the sport than was ever seen on Spike.  Now with “the worldwide leader in sports,” what changes can be expected for the sport of MMA?

Most noticeably, the introduction of ESPN+ signals a shift in how fans will consume the sport.  Fans of the UFC who wish to see MMA at the same rate as before will now be streaming the sport on various devices.  The new deal states that ESPN will air 30 events in 2019.  Of those 30, ten will air on ESPN’s various networks.  The remaining 20 will air on ESPN+.  The question now, will the UFC fanbase continue to follow the sport on their phone or streaming device?  Will fans continue to watch events in the same numbers on their phone as they did on television?   In the age of smart TVs and the convenience of technology, it’s not unheard of to connect a phone or computer to a large screen to watch content.  But will the added effort to connect every time they want to watch a fight card lead to a drop in numbers?

In 2017, the UFC held 39 events in total.  Twelve of those were on pay-per-view.  It remains to be seen how many events will be aired in 2019, but the number could be vital moving forward.  Numbers on pay-per-view in general have been in a decline with the general sentiment among fans being that several events are simply not worth the near $70 price tag.  If there are less events on pay-per-view and they put on 39 events again in 2019, then it could well assist the promotion in stacking events.  But according to recent reports, the UFC plans to air 12 events on pay-per-view again in 2019.  The selling point of each event is supposed to be that a fighter is built up en route to the super cards on pay-per-view.  If numbers diminish on ESPN+, will the UFC’s struggles to deliver on pay-per-view continue?

Finally, it would appear that the new deal could well lead to the end of the UFC’s Fight Pass app.  For the last several years, the app has streamed live events and housed the library of fights and content for the company.  But with the move to ESPN, there is question of whether fans will still commit to the $9.99 per month or roughly $120 per year for the app.  On the one hand, it’s expected that ESPN+ will carry the library of new fights aired on the network.  However, with $60 per year or so for the new app, will fans continue to pay for what could just be an old library of content?  If the UFC does do away with their streaming service, it could mean that new options will be necessary for companies like Invicta FC, who have aired their events exclusively on Fight Pass for several years.

The deal with the UFC and ESPN is a marriage of the largest brands in mixed martial arts and sports broadcasting.  In the early 90’s, the sport was promoted as “no holds barred” and fought for legalization across the country.  In 2018, the sport is a billion dollar industry and the new deal represents the continued push into the mainstream.