ESPN and UFC announced Monday that the mixed martial arts company’s pay-per-view events will be broadcast exclusively on the network’s ESPN+ digital subscription service through 2025, starting with UFC 236 on April 13. Anyone who wants to purchase the PPVs, which usually feature the biggest names in the sport and take place once a month, will need a subscription to ESPN+, which costs $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year and is accessed through the company’s mobile app or ESPN.com.
As part of the PPV deal, new ESPN+ subscribers can purchase a one-year subscription for $79.99, which includes one UFC PPV event. For existing ESPN+ subscribers, the UFC PPVs will cost $59.99, $5 less than what UFC previously charged for the cards.
The move gives ESPN a valuable chunk of content for its fledgling streaming service, which was launched last April in an attempt to stem the loss of revenue from cable subscribers who have cut the cord. Along with UFC matches, ESPN+ delivers sporting events not televised on ESPN’s cable networks, including out-of-market MLB and NHL games, college sports events, domestic and international soccer matches, tennis, rugby and cricket.
Previously, UFC PPV events were sold both through the company’s online arm and via cable companies, which would keep a percentage of each PPV fee that was paid by subscribers. UFC will continue to sell its PPV events to commercial establishments such as sports bars and also will retain the rights to PPV events sold internationally.
UFC President Dana White said the company’s fans will benefit from the new deal because of ESPN’s reach and the convenience of knowing that all of UFC’s biggest events will be available in one location. (UFC’s previous television deal was with Fox, which would air events on its different channels.)
“ESPN has all the big [sports] properties . . . and the fan is accustomed to waking up and watching ‘SportsCenter’ or going on ESPN.com,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “We’ve aligned the fan, and now there’s no mystery about where to find UFC. It’s all housed in one home.
“We were all over the map” under UFC’s previous television contracts, White added. “It’s a one-stop shop at ESPN. Everything will be on ESPN.”
For the April 13 series of fights, ESPN’s linear network will broadcast the preliminary fights, advertising to fans the opportunity to purchase the main event on ESPN+.
“UFC fans tend to be younger and digitally savvy,” said Russell Wolff, executive vice president and general manager for ESPN+. “The access is pretty ubiquitous.”
ESPN reached an agreement to become the broadcast home of UFC last year, paying the company $300 million per year over five years in exchange for 27 non-PPV events, 20 of them airing on ESPN+. The network’s first UFC card aired Jan. 19 on ESPN+, with ESPN saying it received 568,000 new subscribers to the digital service over two days close to the event.
Adding UFC’s premier fights is significant for ESPN’s parent company, Disney, as it prepares a direct-to-consumer streaming service to compete with Netflix. In announcing its first-quarter earnings last month, Disney said ESPN+ had 2 million paying subscribers, double the number from five months earlier, though it has yet to turn a profit. Disney also announced that its direct-to-consumer and international segment lost $136 million in the first quarter.
Subscribers who want to watch ESPN+ programming on their televisions must either connect their sets to their computers or use a streaming service such as Amazon Fire, Chromecast or Roku. Preliminary bouts for UFC PPV events will continue to air on cable via ESPN and ESPN Deportes.
According to Dave Meltzer of MMAFighting.com, around 20 percent of the record 2.4 million PPV buys for UFC 229 in October — featuring the return of Conor McGregor to the octagon — were purchased through an online streaming option, up significantly from a few years earlier, when only around 5 percent of PPV subscribers would purchase cards through a streaming service.
ESPN declined to comment on its modeling or financial details of the deal.
White said he expected some blowback from fans, noting that “there’s always going to be people who don’t like change.” But he said the sheer amount of UFC content that will be available on ESPN+ — along with the fight cards, there are documentaries and a library of past bouts — will make it worth the monthly expenditure.
“If you’re a UFC fan, there’s never been a better time to be a fan than now,” White said. “The access and the amount of content, there’s a ton of value there.”
Mark Shapiro, president of UFC parent company Endeavor, said the ESPN deal has exposed UFC to new audiences, calling it an “outrageous success” for both the mixed martial arts company and the network. He said the total monthly cost for UFC PPVs essentially will be unchanged ($59.99 plus the ESPN+ subscription fee, instead of $64.99 for a single fight).
Said White: “Look at our schedule. We’re always on. We’re consistent. If you’re paying $4.99 a month, you’re getting tremendous value.”
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