The future of the UFC’s viewing is becoming more clear, as it was reported by SportsBusiness Journal that ESPN will be taking over FOX’s UFC package in a five-year, $1.5 billion deal. The price includes the five-year $150 million per year deal to air 15 UFC events on ESPN+ they agreed to two weeks ago.
At first glance, this seems to be a positive for the UFC, but it is more of a settlement. According to Darren Rovell, the Fertittas told investors just two years ago that the UFC TV rights would be worth $450 million a year. That, of course, is far greater than the $300 million per year they are currently set to receive.
The UFC has and always will have a strong niche audience, but when it comes to mainstream appeal those days seem to be hidden far in the past. At a time the Fertittas were confident in the product’s price, and before the company sold for an unprecedented $4 billion price tag, it looked to be bursting on to the scene.
Featuring the biggest name in women’s combat sports history (Ronda Rousey), the biggest draw the sport has ever seen (Conor McGregor), and the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time (Jon Jones) it felt as if the UFC was set to become the king of combat sports.
That has all changed. According to MMA Fighting, In 2017, pay-per-view sales tanked year-over-year with a 55-percent decline in total buys along with a 51-percent decline in the average per show. 10 of their 12 events failed to even eclipse 300,000 views.
Not only have the events that they have marketed themselves around declined, but the prelims also were beyond disappointing. The 29 percent decline had to have hurt their overall value in bidding as many aired on FOX’s channels. The hits kept on coming as the live gates also began to suffer, down 51 percent over the previous year.
While it is still very earlier in 2018 to consider year totals, their Atlantic City show hit record low numbers.
It was plausible to believe that they were going to overtake boxing and the WWE. Oh, how times have changed, today they are without a doubt the weakest of the three.
The UFC’s issues stem from their lack of current stars. When is the last time the UFC was discussed outside of UFC specific programming? It was a bus attack by McGregor. Before that incident, it will take some time to remember.
With McGregor seeming to be all but interested in returning to the octagon anytime soon, and Rousey becoming a star in the WWE, things do not look good for Dana White’s company.
Look at the names of their current performers … a lot of talent, a lot of good fighters, not a lot of big names, or even names that would resonate with 25 percent of a sports bar.
History has shown – in all combat sports – in order to be a star they must dominate in the octagon and have a newsmaking personality. Current names like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Demetrious Johnson, Paige VanZant, Amanda Nunes, and Stipe Miocic check one of those boxes but are far from satisfying both requirements.
The best case scenario is a fight between Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones as rumored. But with Jones currently suspended again and Lesnar yet to serve his suspension that fight is far from a guarantee. It also remains a mystery if either can stay clean for the fight upon being booked.
FOX looks to have made a calculated decision in choosing the WWE over the UFC as it can be controlled and is not in danger of seeing a star fall from grace. Even if the UFC can find a potential heir apparent to Rousey or McGregor they will be in instant danger of becoming the heir apparent to Rousey in a bad way.
If this roster is to become an essential part of ESPN+, it is hard to imagine a single talent forcing a large audience to subscribe. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the UFC can regain some appeal, but as of right now the trends are very alarming.