The last week of April 2017 marked a loud yet symbolic shift in the future of sports on television. ESPN, the longtime self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” released some of its best-known and credible journalistic talent in a purge designed to show Wall Street that it was in serious cost-cutting mode, a response to the continuing loss of millions of cable subscribers who have chosen to cut the cord.
According to Recode, the behemoth has lost 10 million subscribers in just the last five years, an exodus that has led to substantial revenue losses for the network and parent company Disney.
Similarly, Fox Sports 1 is down five million subscribers in less than four years of being launched, according to Sports Business Daily.
It is in this current climate that the UFC will soon bring its television rights fees to market with the hopes of quadrupling its current $115 million annual average, Sports Business Daily recently reported. The UFC’s exclusive window with current TV partner Fox will open later this year.
In at least one way, the UFC is better prepared than ever to take its rights to market. The ownership team at WME-IMG is invested in the outcome, bringing extensive knowledge of the entertainment industry as well as negotiating experience into the fray.
But the current business winds are unsettled.
“It’s hard to predict, but I don't think you’ll see ESPN continue to overpay for rights,” Daniel Roberts, a writer for Yahoo Finance who covers the intersection of sports and business, told Bleacher Report. “ESPN is spending $8 billion this year just on rights fees. That’s just eye-popping. It’s not tenable for much longer. It’s gotten to the point that every time there’s a Disney earnings report and you scroll down to ‘Cable Networks,’ it says ‘Profit was down at ESPN due to rising programming costs and falling subscriptions. It’s pretty basic business math here—spending up and revenue down—so when you put that on the UFC deal, I don’t see how they can get four times what they did last time, at least not from ESPN.”
But even that comes with a caveat: As bad as the UFC’s timing is in regards to entering a down business market, its timing is fantastic when it comes to little competition in available sports TV rights. In fact, the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball television rights are all locked up until 2020 at the earliest, with the college football playoffs and the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament under contract until 2025 and 2032, respectively.
With the sports TV landscape close to barren, the UFC has the ability to position itself accordingly and perhaps drive up its fee.
After all, even while cost-cutting, networks still operate with the understanding that content is king, and any available piece of it can fire up a bidding war.
“It is impossible to ignore the exorbitant fees that ESPN pays for the rights to broadcast a wide spectrum of sporting events, but it is part and parcel of being the ‘Worldwide Leader,’ I suppose,” Darren Heitner, an attorney and founder of Heitner Legal, P.L.L.C., a law firm that specializes in sports law, told Bleacher Report. “ESPN is in this precarious position in which it feels obligated to win bidding wars for important TV rights or else it will shed some of its excellence in comparison to much weaker networks. The key question is: If ESPN reduces its role in bidding, will the fees be reduced in accordance with ESPN's action?”
The thing is, nobody knows what exactly overpaying will look like in a constantly changing landscape.
And part of the UFC’s battle in reaching its own projections will stem from self-inflicted wounds. Namely, UFC ratings have taken a dip in the early part of 2017 after a blockbuster 2016.
The promotion’s franchise reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, drew just 288,000 viewers to the Season 25 opener, according to ShowBuzz Daily, marking an all-time low. A recent event that featured UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson’s record-tying 10th title defense had the second-worst ratings of any UFC on Fox show ever, according to MMA Fighting. Even the UFC’s pay-per-view numbers are way down, with the first three events of the year drawing around 800,000 combined buys, according to various industry estimates. (By comparison, the first three pay-per-views of 2016 drew about 2 million combined buys, according to Dave Meltzer (h/t MMAPayout).
Those falling metrics are largely the result of a lack of star power in 2017 shows, with draws such as Conor McGregor, Jon Jones and Nick and Nate Diaz yet to see action, and Ronda Rousey likely retired.
Still, there remains evidence that the UFC’s power goes past its raw numbers. After all, there’s a reason the promotion sold for over $4 billion less than a year ago. While audience numbers have dipped since then, the UFC still has the power to draw the coveted 18-49 demographic that advertisers covet. And a triumphant McGregor return—or the return of longtime champ Georges St-Pierre—can quickly change the narrative.
“I certainly can’t predict how much ESPN cares about the UFC but I think they’d be smart to strengthen their coverage of up-and-coming sports,” Roberts said. “They cut back on college sports. They basically closed down their whole ESPNU production headquarters in Charlotte. But I’d be surprised if they cut back on sports that are getting more and more popular, especially because MMA brings an audience that doesn’t necessarily follow other sports. It’s a very strong, devoted audience of fans that have a slightly different profile.”
The UFC can show its connection to these audiences as well as its ability to harness developing mediums as illustrated by its social media prowess (over 38 million followers on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram) and adoption of its over-the-top digital service, UFC Fight Pass.
The UFC’s ability to meet its own $450 million per year expectations will ultimately hinge on how the networks value the organization in the context of the prevailing market conditions. Is it the last of the valuable sports rights for the foreseeable future or another bloated contract destined to weigh down its network? The answer depends mostly on the viewpoint of management.
Put on the spot for predictions, both sports business experts believe that the UFC will come close to that target if not reach it.
“I don't think rights fees are in trouble, per se, but I think that they may plateau in the near future,” Heitner said. “UFC rights should still be exploited for a very large sum of money, and the multiple of 4x is possible. It is more difficult to value those rights as the sport is continuously attracting a wider, larger audience over time.”
“I bet they’ll get close,” Roberts added. “Fox is really trying to ramp up by spending whereas ESPN has overspent. Four-hundred-fifty [million] seems like a stretch. The questions will be: a) Is ESPN going to overpay for one more thing? I don’t think so. And b) Does Fox feel that having UFC has been a key reason it’s grown so much? So if I’m guessing for fun, I’d say about $350 million max. They’ll get close to the number they want, but I don’t see how they’ll get four times what they got last time.”
Growth has halted. Budgets are shrinking. Approaches are adapting to new economic and technological realities. That means in this go-round, the old rules of sports rights negotiation no longer apply. The UFC selling events to multiple networks is possible; so is the possibility that it sells events to a network and a streaming partner.
As the UFC’s negotiating window opens, there is a fortune to be made, but the promotion has an uphill battle to ensure that the difference between what it wants and what it will receive is not a fortune of its own.