By Tawny Cox
It’s been a year and some change since the UFC signed a lucrative five year 1.5 billion dollar contract with ESPN. The first event was held on January 19, 2019, at the Barclay’s Center in New York. UFC Fight Night 143 became ESPN+ 1 and thus the new partnership began. There have been significant changes noticeable to avid MMA fans.
The card itself was a controversial start. Many media members were perplexed why President Dana White chose to have former NFL defensive end, Greg Hardy, on the inaugural card with Rachael Ostovich. Hardy was found guilty of domestic violence charges in 2014, which was later overturned. Rachael was recently battered and beaten by her husband to the point of coughing up blood.
Regardless of White’s decisions, the card went on and was a success: Henry Cejudo beat TJ Dillisaw in 32 seconds to remain the flyweight champion. Greg and Rachael both lost their bouts. ESPN+ generated 525,000 new subscribers the night of the fight.
The UFC announced the partnership will consist of 30 UFC Fight Night events per year. Ten main cards would appear on ESPN’s television networks, which has mostly been ESPN2. The other 20 bouts would stream on ESPN+ for $4.99 per month. UFC Fight Night events and PVV will entail 12 bouts.
Quickly after the initial launch, ESPN announced in March 2019 a two-year renewal extending the contract to 2025.
In hindsight, this was a good move. The company hit two million subscribers in less than a year after launch.
Since ESPN and the UFC merged much has changed other than how to buy the fights. One of the first things to go was the old website design. It’s now been updated with a post-modern feel that screams innovation and evolution. The new design is so drastic it almost makes the old one comparable to scrolling through MySpace. It’s easier to navigate: finding old fights is a breeze — the organization value has risen. The scrolling experience is interactive and attractive to the eye. It simply feels and looks good.
Another complaint I used to see on Twitter pre-ESPN era was the pacing of the fight cards. Some nights felt like an eternity between fights, followed by crammed ones. It felt disorganized through the television. MMA Fighting’s Luke Thomas had the most to say at the time, and I can’t disagree with his assessment.
On his SiriusXM radio show, he says, “Oh my god, the pacing on ESPN is so much better. I am so much happier about it. The UFC broadcast pacing on ESPN and ESPN+ is a categorical improvement over FS1’s treatment. In both UFC Brooklyn and UFC Fortaleza, UFC and ESPN trimmed a lot of broadcast fat for their streaming product, making for a much more enjoyable fan experience. I didn’t realize how much of a tax FS1’s television pacing was, but this new development has made me reconsider how big of a problem it all turned out to be.”
My favorite renovation since ESPN has been the promos and posters. Most of the promos used to be predominantly voice clips of Joe Rogan and Goldie (who moved to rival company Bellator years ago) hyping the fights. Now we have the very familiar voice of legendary Ron Pearlman. You might recognize his voice as “Clay” from Sons of Anarchy. The throughline of the promos is more exciting and exact.
The poster designs have been most compelling. They used to be very bland, very basic, very… blah. Not much excitement going on there. ESPN’s design team came through and turned that around. The contain color, contrast, juxtaposition, depth, emotion, and story.
I asked ESPN combat sports reporter, Marc Raimondi, what he thought was the most significant change since UFC’s broadcast moved to ESPN. He says, “I feel like the partnership has gotten fighters much more exposure on mainstream sports television. For instance, someone like Jorge Masvidal became very well known in the mainstream based off his success in 2019 alone in part because of the ESPN deal. Masvidal was a great fighter for a long time, a veteran of more than a decade in MMA. But it wasn’t until he got the ESPN platform that he made himself into one of the UFC’s biggest stars.”
One of my complaints from ESPN, which was announced this year, is you now must have an ESPN+ subscription to buy a PPV. Therefore subscribes have to pay the $4.99 subscription plus the 64.99 PPV. But don’t worry, there are options. Below is a breakdown in pricing from the ESPN help tab–
- New ESPN+ subscribers can buy a bundle of one UFC PPV event (streaming in HD) and an ESPN+ annual recurring subscription for $84.98. The ESPN+ annual subscription will auto-renew after one year, at the price of an ESPN+ annual subscription at the time of auto-renewal.
- Existing yearly ESPN+ subscribers will be able to purchase each UFC PPV event (streaming in HD) for $64.99.
- Existing Monthly ESPN+ subscribers will be able to either upgrade to an annual plan and purchase UFC PPV for $84.98 OR purchase the UFC PPV for $64.99 by itself.
In the past weeks, we’ve seen ESPN and parent company, Disney, force the hand of Dana’s plans. He was doing everything in his power to make UFC 249 possible, with the elusive Tony/Khabaib headlining. Due to the pandemic, it would be unwise to hold the card on a Californian tribal grounds. California is a notable hot-spot for COVID 19.
With a stroke of luck, even though the pandemic, UFC 249 was held last night in Jacksonville, FL., but not with the original headliners. Khabib was not able to re-enter the U.S., so he was replaced by the human highlight reel, Justin Gaethje.
The winner was guaranteed a lightweight title fight with Kahbib in the fall. Tony Ferguson ended up breaking his 12 fight win streak. He lost via ref stoppage in the fifth round. It’s hard not to feel for the guy whose opportunity to dance with Khabib seems to always be just out of reach.
It will be interesting to see how Dana’s Fight Island, reportedly in international waters, will go over with the forces that be. The location has yet to be disclosed.