It sure looks like Ariel Helwani, currently at Vox Media’s MMA Fighting, will join ESPN to beef up its UFC coverage. There are a couple of context clues that he’s making the move. First, he was a guest on Get Up this morning, discussing the situation from UFC 224 last weekend where Raquel Pennington was sent back in for further pummeling in the final round after she had wanted to end her women’s bantamweight title match against Amanda Nunes.
While it is not totally unheard of for ESPN to have other outlets’ reporters on television, this is a spot where it would be standard for them to put one of their in-house people on the program. Hmm. My suspicions were further amplified by this tweet exchange:
That sure looks like a welcome to a new colleague — if I were a betting man, I’d wager that’s what this was. An ESPN spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
The timing and context of this would make a lot of sense for ESPN. They just announced last week that they acquired some UFC rights; John Ourand reported that it was a five-year deal worth $150 million annually and will include exclusive rights to 15 events a year on the new ESPN+ app as well as some other content.
Helwani is the type of multi-platform talent that ESPN is building around now; he writes, reports, analyzes, and conducts interviews about the sport. Just today, the former UFC champ Chuck Liddell announced on Helwani’s MMA Hour show that he would be coming out of retirement:
One thing to monitor as the months go on is that Helwani has at times had a fraught relationship with UFC head Dana White. Helwani was removed from Fox’s UFC coverage in 2016, presumably at White’s behest, and later had his credentials revoked (they were eventually restored) for reporting that Brock Lesnar would be returning for UFC 200 (this was an accurate report but it spoiled their announcement plans).
Obviously, the inherent conflict ESPN has where it journalistically covers the sports leagues that it is rights partners with is nothing new, and regardless of whether it is Helwani or other reporters, this dynamic will bear observing as the new deal with UFC begins.