The UFC Inaugurates The ESPN Era
In 2019, the world and MMA are both in a much different place than we were back when the UFC first signed with FOX and brought MMA to mainstream television. In 2011, the MMA landscape was vastly different, in some ways better and in other ways much worse. Since the UFC's move to FOX, the sport has exploded and the company has posted incredible earnings, eventually leading to the UFC being sold to WME-IMG for over 4 billion dollars. The sport has been legitimised, even if the fighters have only seen a small fraction of the financial rewards stemming from that acknowlegment. The UFC is now a juggernaut, with a schedule that has ballooned over the years and asks a lot even of the most die-hard fan, in terms of an investment of time and money.
Now, as the UFC moves to it's new broadcast partner in ESPN, it's worth taking a look at where things are and where they may be headed. One of the worst things to come out of the FOX deal was the sharp increase in the number of events. The UFC went from 27 events in 2011 to 41 in 2016, and 39 in both 2017 and 2017, with fight cards featuring 12-13 fights each, turning MMA fandom into a considerable timesink. As much as the UFC's profits have grown, the product itself feels divorced from what initially appealed to me back when The Ultimate Fighter was a novel concept rather than a concept so tired and past its sell-by date that it pains me to event acknowledge its existence.
The seemingly non-stop schedule of fight cards, all of which occupying 6-7 hours of time, are filled with so many interchangeable fights between similarly interchangeable fighters that the sense of fandom I have isn't even the same. From 2008 through to 2012, I could give you a detailed breakdown of the entire careers of pretty much anyone on a UFC fight card. The number of veterans I recognise has been dropping off steadily, as the ravages of time and long careers sends them on losing streaks before they're cut, retire or sign with other promotions — sometimes all of those, several times, in no particular order. It's never been easier to watch fights and harder to find talent to become attached to as a fan.
The roster is so deep that, even with running ~40 events a year that still means you might see a fighter compete 3 tmes in a year. Often times that number is 1 or 2, and then you run the risk of bouts being scrapped due to weigh-in problems, injury or illness. The UFC doesn't put much work into promoting its talent, the schedule doesn't make it easy for fans to take it upon themselves and embrace up-and-comers, and there are so many events that a ridiculous number of high quality fights are stuck in the middle of these fight cards and forgotten about by the time the next set of fighters squares off that night. Modern UFC fandom can feel like starving to death at a buffet; there's so much to consume that it's difficult to know where to begin and it might even be dangerous to finish it all.
That's just how the UFC is, it demands a lot from everyone involved, even the fighters. While the UFC's profits have soared to incredible heights, the percentage of that money finding its way into the fighters' pockets remains exceptionally low. The fact that the UFC signed a $1.5 billion dollar, 5-year deal with ESPN means little to the fighters as there is no sort of profit sharing arrangement in place. The fighters will compete for whatever their contracts stipulate, rates that — when salary information is released by the local comissions — are small in comparison to the wealth the UFC generates. The fighters lost their personal sponsors with the Reebok deal, and are subject to career-altering judgments from USADA in an anti-doping policy, neither of which fighters had any input on. Whether those issues ever prompt any sort of revolt or unionisation effort remains to be seen, but so far any and all attempts on that front have failed to launch.
The new deal with ESPN adds another set of demands on the fanbase; the fights on a UFC card will be spread across the UFC's Fight Pass platform, ESPN and their ESPN+ streaming service, and pay-per-view in some cases. Those outside of the United States, without the ability to even purchase ESPN+ if they wanted to, will have to figure out what options apply to them based on the UFC's broadcast deals in their area. Considering this is an organisation that moved a pay-per-view card to another state on 6 days' notice, I guess I should not be at all surprised at how much the UFC expects from its fans in terms of money and time committments. So far, they've managed to thrive with this mentality; I'm loathe to admit it, but it's worked out pretty well for them. Whether that continues to hold true, we'll have to wait and see.
I'm not expecting a drastic change from when the UFC was partnered with FOX; we're going to be getting a lot fights, on a schedule that almost makes you wonder if the UFC expects that fans won't be watching every offering. I've been a die-hard fan for almost 15 years now, and followed the sport at a distance before that, but the current number of events is becoming too much even for me. As much as the UFC will continue to evolve and change over time, so too will the fanbase.
Published: January 19th, 2019.