For a long time now, UFC fans have known a tough decision loomed on the horizon.
As the fight company continued to expand its calendar of live events from one year to the next, we understood that eventually we’d have to make some hard-and-fast choices about what to watch and what to miss.
The day was coming that you wouldn’t be able to catch it all, not if you had a family, a job or a life away from your television.
Luckily, it now seems the UFC may have made that decision for us. Last week’s announcement that 2014 could see a near 50 percent increase in the number of events came with a potentially game-saving caveat.
Much of the inflated UFC slate will consist of overseas shows that Zuffa CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said may not even air on live TV in the United States. Instead, they’ll be available via a new “digital distribution network” that the UFC is likely to launch early next year.
And yeah—if you’re scoring at home—“digital distribution network” is a fancy way to say website: one you’ll have to pay a subscription fee to use.
Details are scarce so far, so how much the subscription will cost or what it will get you isn’t known. We also don't know how the UFC will manage the delicate balancing act of integrating this new all-digital content with its current crush of live fight cards, multiple seasons of reality television and frequent promotional specials.
But make no mistake—in relegating a good number of its new events to online streaming, the company is tacitly sending us a message: The important stuff will still air live on TV.
The rest is strictly voluntary.
And you know what? That seems like a great development. If the UFC is intent on expanding its menu of annual offerings to outlandish levels—and it is—then the creation of this “digital network” is the best possible scenario.
After all, the Internet seems like the right place for this new crop of nonessential programming, which, as Dana White explained to MMA Junkie last weekend, isn’t meant to be all things to all people.
“The fights that we do in China are for China,” White said. “The fights we do in Europe are going to be for Europe, but with this new digital network, people who are hardcore fans and want to watch the fights will be able to.”
That seems like a compromise that some might not have thought this company capable of making. Maybe it didn’t have a choice. At this point, it’s tough to imagine anyone wanting to spend more money or time on the UFC—especially after Wednesday’s news that the price of UFC 168 is going up to $59.95—but those who do will now have an outlet.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the fanbase can keep up with the broad strokes.
In the past, it felt as though UFC fans had a responsibility to keep tabs on the company’s every move. That’s been harder and harder to do in recent years, but now the feeling of obligation to watch every single fight card and know every single fighter could lessen a bit.
Never before has the line between what’s required and what isn’t been so clearly delineated.
In the end, that might end up feeling quite liberating.