Updated with official confirmation and additional details. ESPN, which last month set a streaming deal with the UFC, confirmed it has added linear TV rights to that package, with a major five-year pact that ends the circuit’s seven-year run on Fox Sports.
The official announcement did not specify terms, but sources confirmed to Deadline earlier today that the UFC would get $300 million a year in a five-year deal starting in January — double what Fox paid on an average annual basis. Endeavor, which led the $4 billion acquisition of the UFC in 2016, had been in talks with a range of suitors, including Fox. The streaming rights acquired by ESPN+, the newly launched streaming service, came in at $150 million a year.
Ratings have been declining lately for the UFC, but its backers call that a cyclical trend and point out its appeal to young male viewers, a prime target for many advertisers. According to the UFC, its 280 million fans around the world have a median age of 40, youngest of any major professional sport. When rights negotiations began earlier this year, though, it was a big question whether the rights would land in a desirable range for the sellers. The sports rights market overall has defied gravity as programmers remain willing to spend heavily for reliable ratings generators. As with the general TV ad market, while ratings may be experiencing secular decline, pricing remains healthy due to scarcity.
Under the deal, ESPN+ and ESPN will carry 42 live events, 30 of which will feature a full card of 12 UFC bouts. ESPN linear networks will broadcast 10 exclusive events as well as all UFC pay-per-view preliminary fights. ESPN+, the $5-a-month, direct-to-consumer streaming service that launched April 12, will offer 20 exclusive events and all preliminary fights for UFC on ESPN Fight Night.
“With this agreement, the only destination where fans can watch all UFC programming is the ESPN app,” the release noted, “and in the future, the full breadth of content will be available on ESPN+.”
ESPN’s president, Jimmy Pitaro, a former Disney and Yahoo exec who replaced John Skipper a few months ago as a favorite of Disney CEO Bob Iger, said the deal “will deliver tremendous value” to both the UFC and the network. “UFC fans are passionate and loyal and we plan to bring the full power of ESPN’s live coverage, powerful storytelling and unmatched distribution to serve them in an unprecedented fashion,” he said.
Kevin Mayer, Chairman, Direct-To-Consumer and International for Disney called the agreement “an exciting development for fight fans” and he described UFC’s fan base as “young, passionate and tech-savvy.”
That’s a characterization UFC president Dana White would certainly endorse. “Today is another monumental day for UFC, our athletes, and our fans,” he said.
Pitaro has been in his role for just a few months, but already has sought for statement deals to show that the network remains the dominant player in sports despite subscriber erosion in recent years that has unnerved some Disney investors. Asked at last week’s ESPN upfront about the frothy marketplace for sports rights, and also about his view of its NFL deal, which expires in 2021, Pitaro was decidedly upbeat. In particular, he noted the network’s appetite for fighting. It recently closed a major deal with Top Rank Boxing. “Combat sports in general are of interest to us,” he said.
21st Century Fox, in preparation for most of the company being sold to Disney or Comcast, has added prime-time NFL and WWE programming to Fox’s lineup in recent months.
“Fox Sports has enjoyed an amazing partnership with the UFC over the last seven years,” the company said in a statement. “As Fox Sports was planning the launch of FS1, Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta were the first partners to believe in the idea and vision of the new network. We look forward to finishing out 2018 with more exciting live events and wish the UFC continued success in the years to come.”