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What does the UFC’s new TV deal with ESPN mean for UK viewers?

I take a look at how the new TV deal between the UFC and ESPN in the US could affect UK fans moving forward

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The speculation can now be put to rest. The destination for the UFC’s broadcasts from the end of the year onwards has been decided.

Variety first reported Stateside that the UFC has struck a five-year, $300million-a-year deal with America’s No.1 sports network ESPN to carry their live events from the start of 2019.

The deal effectively replaces that currently held with Fox, and will see the UFC net a colossal $1.5billion over the next five years.

The deal will see ESPN-branded networks broadcast or stream 42 UFC events, either in full or in part, each year, starting next year.

  • 20 UFC on ESPN+ Fight Night events will be shown in full on ESPN’s new streaming service, ESPN+
  • 10 more UFC on ESPN Fight Night main cards will be aired on ESPN’s TV channels, with prelims shown on ESPN+
  • 12 UFC pay-per-view preliminary cards will be aired on ESPN’s TV channels
  • Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series will also feature on ESPN+

More than just a broadcast deal

ESPN’s partnership with the UFC offers much more than simply a distribution partner to the Endeavor-owned MMA promotion.

ESPN’s 24/7 network shows a plethora of sports highlights and discussion programming, and now they have the UFC on their roster, the fights will soon become even more of a regular talking point than before.

Fans can expect the likes of First Take, Get Up! and Pardon the Interruption to weave UFC-related debate and discussion into their shows on a more regular basis, while breaking news and highlight-reel moments will become a common occurrence on the network’s flagship show, SportsCenter.

What does the new deal mean for British viewers?

It’s unlikely the change in broadcaster will have a huge impact on the destination of any potential TV deal here in the UK.

Only if the UFC had decided to break with tradition and move fully into the realm of online streaming with a partner like Netflix or Amazon may there have been the possibility of a global (or multi-region) rights deal being struck. But with the UFC partnering with ESPN, it would seem all options remain on the table for the UK market.

The UFC’s current deal with BT Sport was timed to expire at around the same time as the Fox deal in the US, so expect a repeat of the process two years ago, when the UFC sat down with major UK broadcasters including BT Sport and Sky before eventually agreeing to re-up their deal with the Stratford-based broadcaster.

ESPN’s UK TV channel is co-branded and run by BT Sport, so an extension of that deal may potentially open up the possibility for BT Sport to run more of the US-based ESPN-branded shows, including some of those mentioned earlier in this article (they already show Pardon the Interruption in filler slots).

Where are the UK rights likely to go next?

The most likely scenario is that the UFC remains in partnership with BT Sport. The broadcaster has the channel bandwidth to show all the UFC programming fans would expect to see and with the channel set to show live action from as early as 4pm this Sunday at UFC Liverpool – the first time we’ve seen live MMA on BT Sport’s linear channels during bona-fide daytime hours – it shows a softening of attitude towards MMA in terms of daytime suitability where previously there were watershed concerns.

Sky was thought to be seriously interested two years ago, but with their partnership with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Sport organisation seemingly going from strength to strength, with their ever-growing (and excellent) boxing output, plus the hugely popular major tournaments from the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), they may opt to go with what they have.

Despite their packed roster, Sky may still be interested but, as things currently stand, the value of the UFC deal to BT Sport would appear to be higher than it would be for Sky.

But the possible return of a certain Irishman might just persuade Sky to take a punt.

Could the UK soon get UFC on pay-per-view?

UK fans won’t want to hear this, but don’t rule it out. And it could potentially come sooner than you think.

Sky Sports regularly run their bigger boxing shows via their pay-per-view channel Sky Box Office, and the potential return to the octagon of Conor McGregor could tempt the Osterley-based broadcaster to stump up the cash to open up the possibility of a first-ever UFC pay-per-view broadcast featuring the Dubliner.

Could the return of Conor McGregor see a UFC event on PPV for the first time in the UK? [Pic: Per Haljestam]

Could the return of Conor McGregor see a UFC event on PPV for the first time in the UK? [Pic: Per Haljestam]

It’s worth noting, too, that BT Sport also plans on launching a pay-per-view channel of its own, with BT Sport Box Office set to launch later this year.

Realistically, given the time slots involved and the fact that we don’t currently have a big-name British UFC world champion to galvanise the UK viewership, a pay-per-view UFC event for this market is only really feasible if McGregor is involved. He’s the one man who can pull in casual viewers and persuade enough people to part with their hard-earned cash to watch.

If McGregor were to return in a title fight later this year against Khabib Nurmagomedov, for example, BT Sport may see it as the perfect opportunity to launch BT Sport Box Office with a huge event.

Through their partnership with boxing promoter Frank Warren, BT Sport also has a host of top-drawer boxing talent on their roster, including former heavyweight world champ Tyson Fury and current world champions Carl Frampton, Billy Joe Saunders, Terry Flanagan and Josh Warrington, so you can also expect boxing to feature on BT’s PPV platform once it’s up and running.

What about free-to-air TV?

The UFC’s relationship with the BBC is growing, with BBC Radio Five Live’s digital-only sister station Five Live Sports Extra set to broadcast live commentary of UFC Liverpool this weekend. But the Beeb isn’t likely to be at the stage where the corporation would commit the sort of money required to purchase a full set of rights.

However, if the popularity of the UFC within BBC Sport continues to grow, it might not be out of the question for the UFC to write conditions into their next UK network deal to allow for selected one-off shows to be aired live via the BBC – either via their TV channels or via their digital platforms – to open up the sport to an even bigger audience.

Freelance sports writer and MMA reporter with 19 years’ experience in the UK national media. UFC/MMA Reporter: BBC Three. News Editor: ONE Championship.

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