Let’s make one thing clear from the start: UFC Fight Pass is an amazing idea.
Perhaps no single entity has as much potential to chart the future of MMA as the UFC’s new digital subscription service. Its invention signals our sport’s first baby steps toward a glorious, a la carte future in which fans and promoters alike are less beholden to pay-per-view providers and television networks.
Indeed, Fight Pass may someday be all things to all people.
Unfortunately, in the present, we’re not quite there yet.
As the fight company’s online network stumbles out of its free trial period and into the bright lights of the for-profit world this week, it still has some holes in its game.
The UFC has worked to clean up alleged security defects and cancellation issues reported during the hasty launch late last year, but the complete fight library promised at the network's unveiling remains very much a work in progress. Early adopters also report some streaming issues and continue to gripe about the overall user experience, claiming it’s difficult to find what they want when they want it.
Those bugs are negligible, however, once you consider the real major flaw of Fight Pass: Right now, it’s a bad deal for MMA fans in the United States.
While some international viewers are able to use the service to watch a more complete menu of the UFC’s 2014 schedule, viewers stateside only get access to the company’s lowest tier of new live events.
In essence, they’re being asked to pay an additional charge for fight cards that used to be free or didn’t exist at all because they weren’t up to the standards we expect from the world’s largest MMA organization.
Even for the UFC’s most ardent admirers, it’s tough to spin that as a bargain.
The subscription service’s fee of $9.99 per month (or nearly $120 per year) comes on top of what hardcore fans currently spend annually on pay-per-views: $719.87 if you bought all 13 of them in 2013.
That's in addition to the escalating cable costs many experienced when the UFC moved away from FX and onto the fledgling Fox Sports 1 last summer, and it comes on the heels of the promotion inflating the price of its December UFC 168 PPV by $5 for no discernible reason other than because it could.
At a time when it’s getting more and more expensive just to watch the UFC, the primary goal of Fight Pass should be cutting the sport’s most attentive fans a price break—not asking them to pay extra.
That’s something World Wrestling Entertainment understood when it launched its own online network in February.
For the same monthly cost as Fight Pass (plus a six-month contract), the WWE Network grants users live access to all the promotion’s PPV events, making it a screaming deal for anyone who was going to buy them anyway and a compelling draw for people who weren’t.
There’s no small irony in the fact that WWE—a company notorious for failing to understand its fans—managed to offer up a better package for subscribers than the usually fan-friendly UFC. By cutting the cord with traditional PPV providers, though, Vince McMahon’s decidedly old-world sports entertainment empire did exactly that.
In order for Fight Pass to become the truly revolutionary force everyone wants it to be, the UFC will eventually have to follow suit.
Imagine if a Fight Pass subscription was all-inclusive, if it got you live access to the PPV cards and FS1 cards and everything else. Not only would interest in the service spike, but the UFC could also significantly raise the price while still offering fans a deal.
(Author’s note: If Fight Pass included PPVs and Fox events, I’d gladly pay $50 per month, as I’d be saving a boatload on my cable bill alone.)
So far, UFC brass say they either can’t or won’t do it. Company president Dana White told FoxSports.com’s Damon Martin in January that he thought WWE was “devaluing” its product by giving away the whole kit and caboodle for $10 a month.
There’s also the matter of the UFC’s broadcast partners, both on PPV and cable, who would no doubt need some serious convincing before anything radical could happen. But assuming the company could raise the price of Fight Pass to premium levels if it included premium content, surely there would be enough money to make everyone happy.
The UFC only exists in its current form because for years it did things the television establishment thought were impossible. It’s only as successful as it is today because it always faced forward and rarely succumbed to the pressures of professional sports’ old guard.
Fight Pass could be one more victory in that battle, rewarding loyal fans by saving them some money while pushing the entire industry in a bold new direction.
In order for the digital subscription service to be everything it can be, the future must be now.
Or at least it must be soon.