With the new ESPN pay-per-view deal the UFC have just signed have we seen the end of the Money Fight Era of MMA?
April 9th, 2005, Bruce Buffer mispronounces one of the fighters names, the cage door is bolted and two men face each other across the canvas, waiting for referee Herb Dean to signal the start of three rounds of action. Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar (who Buffer introduced as Stephen) went to war as though there was a firing squad waiting outside the Octagon for the loser. The Ultimate Fighter had already been commissioned for a second season by Spike TV, and had done huge things to raise the profile of the sport to a wider audience, but Griffin vs Bonnar was the icing on the cake. Not only did they have the whole crowd on their feet, but when the finale ratings were released after the event it showed an average of 2.7 million people tuned in to watch the event – and 3.3 million tuned in for their fight. According to UFC Commentator Joe Rogan the viewer numbers were rapidly increasing as the rounds went on, as viewers phoned their friends and told them to tune in and watch. Many people, in my opinion correctly, point to the Griffin vs Bonnar fight marked the moment that the UFC, and MMA with it, moved from an underground event to a legitimate sport. The Superstar Era had began.
What followed was PPV record after PPV record being broken by superstar after superstar. February 2008 saw a WWE star cross over into the UFC, and he was a highly anticipated fan favourite. Brock Lesnar’s title defence against Shane Carwin at UFC 116 had 1,160,000 buys, and his rematch with Frank Mir (where he avenged his promotional debut defeat) sold 1,600,000 – putting them at number 8 and number 3 on the all time top selling UFC PPV’s list. Though his most recent win against Mark Hunt was overturned after a failed drug test (I don’t think anyone was surprised) the talk of him coming back to face the current heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier has got MMA media buzzing and is one of the few super fights that the UFC could make at the moment.
Ronda Rousey then took over as the poster girl of the UFC, entering the UFC at 6-0 on the 6th of February, 2013, and going on a tear against the growing UFC WMMA roster. While she transitioned to mainstream celebrity, taking on movie roles and other media obligations she paved the way for future female championships and showing that women could be just as tough as their male counterparts. Pride came before the fall, and while she was talking about fighting Floyd Mayweather ‘The Preachers Daughter’ was in the gym working on her head kicks. At UFC 193, in front of a record breaking Melbourne crowd Holly Holm dropped Ronda and took her belt. 1,100,000 people brought the pay per view for that fight, and the same number brought her comeback fight against Amanda Nunes, putting both fights joint 8th on the all time PPV sales list.
In the same month that Ronda was making her debut against Liz Carmouche the UFC announced they’d signed a new fighter – some Irish bloke who won his debut against Marcus Brimage using a soon to be famous left hand. Mystic Mac gained notoriety (ironic, considering his nickname) for his trash talking, his Irish gift of the gab, brash predictions of when he’d finish his opponents and his antics on social media and in press conferences won him an army of loyal fans. By the time Conor McGregor became the featherweight champion, finishing off Jose Aldo in 13 seconds (though he recently claimed it was 12, mainly for whiskey PR reasons), he was the golden boy of the UFC, with fighters calling him out left, right and centre to get their own ‘red panty night’. That fight takes number 6 on the list of highest PPV’s, tied with Miesha Tate vs Amanda Nunes at 1,200,000 buys.
The two fights against Nate Diaz in 2016, which saw McGregor choked out and then win by decision, racked up the 4th and 2nd spots on the list, at 1,500,000 and 1,650,000 buys respectively, and setting off the new trend of Superfights, with fighters being matched up to seemingly try and maximise PPV buys and not worrying about the rankings. There were critical voices related to the handing out of Interim titles and the hold up of divisions, but the UFC pushed forward and The Notorious took on The Underground King, Eddie Alvarez, to claim his second title belt and cement himself as the Champ Champ – the first person to simultaneously hold titles in two divisions, though he was stripped of his featherweight belt soon after. The fight with Alvarez is fifth on the PPV list at 1,300,000. After a swap over to boxing to fight Floyd Mayweather (a loss that sold 4,300,000 PPV’s, the second highest in the history of PPV’s) Conor returned to the Octagon and fought Khabib Nurmagomedov, losing that fight but securing the record for most UFC PPV buys at 2,400,000.
The popularity of these stars, along with others like Jon Jones, and the cross over to household names and mainstream media icons made MMA huge, and made the UFC synonymous with MMA as a whole (queue a bunch of memeable ‘oh you train UFC’ comments). It attracted more than just casual fans though, it brought buyers. The Fertitta brothers, who had brought the company in 2001 for $2,000,000 sold the company in 2017 for $4,000,000,000 to WME-IMG, the most expensive organisational buyout in sports history. The brothers walked away with a cool 2000% profit.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. With the massive highs of the million plus buys cards came the lows – when there wasn’t a super star on the cards they’d be lucky to see more than 300,000 buys – Tyron Woodley vs Darren Till did 130,000, and Amanda Nunes vs Raquel Pennington only did 85,000. Good matchups for fans of the sport, the ‘hardcores’ but ‘casuals’ couldn’t have cared less, and certainly not the kind of numbers you’d want if you just dropped four billion on a company. While the UFC had kept a lid on Bellator the rival organisation had still grown in popularity, helped by their tendency to give contracts to any well known UFC name that left the organisation. The fact that they were on free to watch channels attracted more casual fans than UFC PPV’s, and was more direct competition for the UFC on Fox Fight Night cards. The rise of One Championship in Asia also put pressure on the UFC, and showed that you could grow a huge organisation just offering free content. Many analysts pointed out that in a world of free content the PPV model was quick becoming a dinosaur from a bygone era.
Then at the end of last year the UFC changed up its TV deal, announcing that it’s contract with Fox was ending, and that their new partnership would be with ‘The Worldwide Leader in Sport’ ESPN. In a five year deal reportedly worth $1.5 billion the American sports giant would buy the rights to 15 exclusive fight cards a year, Dana’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, pre and post fight coverage, the back catalogue of UFC fights, a new all-access style series and press conferences, weigh ins and other UFC media coverage – all starting in January 2019. Targeting the younger demographic most UFC fans fall into the main focus for coverage was ESPN+, the streaming service owned by the broadcaster. The choice was a smart one, with some reports saying that there was a 568,000 strong bump in ESPN+ subscribers, in just two days, when the UFC content was dropped onto the service. Dana White said in a press conference that ‘Cord Cutting’ (unsubscribing from traditional cable services) was a real thing, and that the UFC aligning with ESPN+ was a boon for both companies.
But a newer announcement quickly followed in March – the UFC and ESPN had renegotiated their deal. Extending the deal for a further two years and starting from UFC 236 all the promotions PPV’s were going to be run through ESPN, and buyers would need to have an ESPN+ subscription in order to purchase one. This is a pretty major change for American viewers, where they can no longer just buy PPV’s through their TV, instead having to rely on the ESPN+ browser service and apps. On the face of it this looks like a dodgy deal for the UFC. The PPV price was going to drop from $64.99 to $59.99, to account for the $4.99 subscription cost. With 12 big PPV’s a year, the price doesn’t really change for the hardcore fan buying every card, but casual fans are going to be less likely to tune in while having to subscribe to a service. Cheaper buys and less viewers may sound like a bad business move, but the UFC are being paid a licensing fee for their PPV’s that’s based on an ‘average’ PPV number from the last few years – including 2016, the year that broke all records – and then a share of any profits above and beyond that number. While its not been expressly said, both companies are playing the numbers close to their chests, best guesses say that the UFC is going to be paid for about 500,000 buys for each show – it’s not a replicating those massive PPV buy years, but the UFC have a guaranteed themselves a strong average profit per card, regardless of who’s headlining it, for every card for the next seven years. It’s now ESPN’s job to make sure that the card has the viewers to make their expense worth it.
So the ESPN deal means the UFC have a safety net, they’re no longer reliant on the super stars selling PPV’s and they no longer have the up and downs of cards that don’t attract casual fans – probably just in time, as their biggest ever star, Conor McGregor, starts selling whiskey, announces his retirement, becomes a Twitter comentator and is potentially facing sexual assault charges. Instead, we’ve already seen fights move back towards the traditional ranking system – guys who’re on the way up fighting other contenders in a battle for the next title shot. A lot of fans hardcore fans are happy with the change, seeing it as fairer on the fighters and, hopefully, seeing divisions that have been held up by champions chasing money fights and champ champ status freed up and back to business as usual. While it doesn’t completely remove the draw of stars, a million plus buys card is still going to be more profitable for the UFC, it certainly takes the power away from the super stars – their bargaining power as being essential to the UFC making profit has just been slashed.
But this also has an adverse impact on the fighters. It’s unclear how much of the profit from the new deal will be passed onto the fighters. We know that PPV headliners would receive a share of the profits from the PPV, but it’s unclear (and the UFC won’t comment on) how the new deal will affect them moving forward. Speculation is that its not likely that fighters will see a share of the 500,000 PPV license fee and, as we said, it’s assumed that the UFC will be taking a hit on the number of PPV’s they sell so fighters can’t rely on getting a share of sales above 500,000. The chances of getting live changing money as a UFC star have shot down, and the 2.4 million buys record of Nurmagomedov vs McGregor is likely to stand for the foreseeable future.
So the future of the UFC looks stable with their new partnership with ESPN, and we can expect to see a lot more of the ranked fights that move divisions forward, at least for the duration of the new deal. But for UFC fighters the future may not look as good, with the chances to make fuck you money dropping right down with the new arrangement. If it no longer pays to be the poster child of the UFC have we seen the death of the UFC superstar?