Fox had held the rights to the latter package since 2011, paying around $120 million annually, but the network announced this week that it will pay $1 billion over five years for the right to air WWE’s “SmackDown Live” pro wrestling program on Friday nights.
According to Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand, ESPN’s deal will give the network 27 more UFC events annually, including 10 full events and 12 pay-per-view preliminary cards that will air on network channels. The ESPN+ app will get an additional five events on top of the 15 that were previously announced. UFC will maintain control of its pay-per-view cards and continue to limit them to 12 per year.
Considering that rising sports rights fees contributed in part to ESPN’s recent financial struggles, the move to double down on UFC at a cost of $300 million annually was surprising to some observers. But live events are about the only thing television networks can count on in the era of cord-cutting, and ESPN now will have a sizable new slate of them when the deal kicks in next year.
New ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro reportedly thinks highly of UFC’s demographic reach, and he said earlier this year that combat sports — ESPN also has a deal with Top Rank Boxing — “are of interest to us.”
“UFC is a premier global sports property with legions of incredibly avid fans,” Pitaro said in announcing the ESPN+ deal earlier this month. “We are excited to be able to bring their world-class events and content to ESPN+ and the ESPN networks. This agreement shows the commitment we have to delivering fans the very best across our entire platform.”
UFC, meanwhile, faced a tricky situation as it looked to negotiate new television packages. With name-brand stars such as Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor and Brock Lesnar stepping away from the octagon, ratings for UFC events on the main Fox network dropped nearly 22 percent in 2017 to a bit more than 2 million viewers on average, while cards on the Fox Sports 1 cable network drew an average of nearly 800,000 viewers, down 18 percent. This year, the UFC on Fox 29 event in April saw a 1 percent rise in total viewership compared with the comparable card in 2017, but a 19 percent drop compared with the April card in 2016. That show’s 1.2 rating tied for the second-worst ever for a mixed martial arts event on prime-time network television, according to Sports Media Watch.
UFC’s pay-per-view events — i.e., the showcases for its biggest stars — also took a significant hit. As reported by MMA Fighting, its 12 PPV events in 2017 drew 3.71 million buys, or an average of 309,000 per show — a 55 percent decline in total buys and a 51 percent decline in the average per show.
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