The literal big deal in sports media yesterday: In January, ESPN will start paying the UFC $150 million a year for a package including:
- 15 live events on ESPN+, the new $49.99/year subscription service
- Other shows, including Dana White’s Contenders series and some new untitled program, on ESPN+
- Weigh-ins, preview shows and press conferences on ESPN+ (yes, MMA fans watch that)
- Archives, archives, archives! (Again, yes, MMA fans watch this. Every once in a while, someone thinks, “Hey, I really need to check out the first St. Pierre-Serra fight” and checks out Fight Pass (see below), even though FS1 and FS2 currently show hours and hours of repackaged UFC replays each week.
- On ESPN’s cable networks, as opposed to ESPN+, a 30-minute preview show and the aforementioned UFC “library programming” (replays).
For MMA fans (and former MMA writers like me), this seems too good to be true. The UFC currently offers something called Fight Pass for twice as much ($9.99/month), and it sounds like ESPN+ will have most of that content. But we’re not sure. As Ben Fowlkes points out at MMAJunkie (the blog of USA TODAY Sports, where I was the first MMA beat writer), we don’t yet know what happens to some oddball programming such as the Eddie Bravo Invitational (grappling), overseas MMA promotions and Invicta FC, which is not a soccer organization but actually a compelling all-female MMA promotion. We know Fight Pass and pay-per-view events will be available through ESPN+, but you have to pay a bit more.
So what does this mean for MLS, which has also shut down its in-house subscription service to put games on ESPN+?
(To clarify/expand — as you’ll see above, it’s much more than just those events.)
Consider this: The UFC currently has a deal with Fox networks for $120 million per year, starting in 2012. WME/IMG bought the UFC itself in 2016 for a ludicrous $4 billion, hoping for bigger deals down the road.
And that seemed to be a dumb investment. As industry insider Dave Meltzer points out at MMA Fighting, the UFC is down by so many metrics — pay-per-view buys, TV ratings, box office, etc. My lukewarm take: MMA has peaked. It’s not going away, but neither is it likely to grow. As Deadspin asked in a very-un-Deadspin deep analysis of the UFC’s rights: “Who Cares About The UFC in 2018?”
In fairness to the UFC, the promotion has had some rotten luck recently. Ronda Rousey lost, then lost worse and raced over to pro wrestling. Jon Jones has shown a catastrophic inability to get his life together, and Conor McGregor has outright flipped out. Those are the biggest stars. The people who actually hold UFC belts are sometimes anonymous, thanks to the convoluted manner in which they win the championships. Consider Robert Whittaker, who won the interim middleweight title in July, watched as UFC legend Georges St. Pierre returned to the cage to win the non-interim belt from Michael Bisping, was promoted to full champion when St. Pierre fell ill, and hasn’t fought since. It’s a rare fight card these days in which the top fights proceed as planned, thanks to injuries, illnesses or botched weight cuts.
But this downturn shows the UFC’s base level when it doesn’t have A-list stars like Rousey, McGregor or Chuck Liddell on fight cards. As with golf or tennis, a big crossover star might give it a temporary boost, but it’s unrealistic to think it’s going to be bigger on any long-lasting level.
And yet, the UFC is getting a raise as its Fox deal runs out at the end of the year. The ESPN deal doesn’t cover everything. Someone’s still going to pay good money for the rest of the UFC’s events (excluding pay-per-views) each year.
That bodes well for everything else in sports. Bloomberg’s headline: “UFC-ESPN Deal Suggests Endless Appetite, Money for Sports Rights.”
So if the declining UFC can command a raise, what will happen to the stagnant Major League Soccer when its deals expire?
As you’ll recall from the Riccardo Silva unvitation to buy the rights for $4 billion, MLS renegotiation is a few years off. To be precise: 2022. Combined pay between ESPN, Fox and Univision: $90 million.
(That’s solely in the USA. I haven’t seen the rights fees for Canadian deals with TSN and TVA, which run through 2021. Overseas, as noted in the post on the NASL’s unvitations to MLS, the league seems to have improved its distribution since switching from Silva, who’s mentioned above, to IMG, which is also mentioned above because apparently only three companies control everything in sports.)
Perhaps that’s unfortunate. The current climate — prodded by new ventures from ESPN, YouTubeTV, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, etc. — might not last four years.
But maybe it will. And maybe MLS, no matter what comes of this year’s lawsuits, will emerge with a much better deal than it has now. (And perhaps these shadowy TV execs — not media-bundling companies — who claim they’ll offer eleventy billion dollars for rights fees if MLS goes pro/rel will emerge from the woodwork in 2021.)