The Rickety Old Shack

UFC Moves US Pay-Per-Views Exclusively To ESPN+

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On March 18th, the UFC made some big waves by announcing that their pay-per-view events will be available exclusively through ESPN's streaming service, ESPN+. This currently only applies to customers in the United States. For customers outside the United States, the process for ordering pay-per-view events remain unchanged — available for purchase through the UFC's Fight Pass service and / or local cable and satellite providers. As the battle of streaming services continues to heat up, it looks like ESPN is going all-in on combat sports and this deal — which seems like a huge win for the UFC — is just another step in that process.

Things look a bit weird right now, as in the US market this deal makes the UFC's own Fight Pass service irrelevant. Unless there's a bigger market for access to events from obscure MMA promotions, Invicta FC, and the odd GLORY show than I'm aware of, there's little reason to subscribe to Fight Pass and ESPN+. In the wake of the announcement, there were also concerns regarding bars and other venues possibly losing their ability to air pay-per-views. There will be no change to that process, and businesses will continue to purchase the same way they always have.

As a Canadian, this doesn't affect me directly, but it is an indication of broader trends in the way TV content is consumed. Streaming is very quickly becoming the new cable TV, where multiple services / channels are required to watch. DAZN has made big moves to acquire boxing mega-stars like Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, it only makes sense that ESPN would crowbar open their vast wallet and secure the UFC as part of their offering. There is a lot of money being thrown around in combat sports — and not always on the fighters, but I digress — which no doubt helped the UFC in their dealings with ESPN.

The traditional cable model is dying, and that's not news to anyone. The new normal is very quickly revealing itself, as big players like DAZN and Disney / ESPN throwing billions of dollars into the acquisition of content and its producers. As part of this change to the UFC's pay-per-view model, they also re-upped their deal with ESPN to span the next 7 years — so both organisations are clearly committed to this whole project. Considering that a large portion of the UFC's revenue coming from pay-per-view, this isn't just a whimsical experiment, this could be very costly for the UFC if this gamble fails to pay off.

One also has to wonder what sort of control ESPN now wields over the UFC, should their partnership fail to produce the expected viewership numbers. Another benefit to this move, according to UFC COO Lawrence Epstein, was better quality data on who is actually consuming their product and buying the pay-per-views. This cuts both ways, as ESPN can see this data and may issue demands to change the product if they feel they're not getting their money's worth.

This is a very big change for the UFC, and I am anticipating some growing pains — especially since ESPN+ is subject to a lot of complaints about connectivity issues — but this deal will be in place for the next 7 years, so we'd better get used to it. What this means for the future of pay-per-view in general, the UFC's future offerings, all remains to be seen. If nothing else, this ESPN partnership has proven to be anything but business as usual on a new platform.

—by Derek

Published: March 23rd, 2019.