UFC plans to be ‘flexible’ in next broadcast rights deal, including potential end to traditional PPV

UFC expects to offer a lot of value to any potential partner under the terms of a new broadcast rights deal once the promotion’s current ESPN contract expires in 2025.

Of course, UFC remains steadfast in possibly reaching a new deal with ESPN to stay at the Disney-owned network after inking a massive contract to move all content including pay-per-views there in 2018. That being said, TKO Group Holdings president Mark Shapiro said Monday that UFC has already outgrown the deal signed with ESPN six years ago.

“That’s where we want to be,” Shapiro said about ESPN during the JP Morgan Technology, Media and Communications conference on Monday. “We love the neighbors on ESPN, those that lead into us and those that lead out of us.

“Having said that, we have grown into a position where we are now under-monetized. That’s just a fact. Not when we did the deal. It was a record deal, very exciting, it was triple what we were getting at FOX. But we are now under-monetized, given the viewership, given the ratings, given the demos, and we look forward to having those conversations.”

UFC has an exclusive negotiating window with ESPN starting in January, but then the organization can begin fielding offers from other potential suitors.

Shapiro revealed that before signing with ESPN in 2018, UFC was actually very close to inking a deal with Amazon as the massive conglomerate looked to expand its Prime Video streaming service prior to signing a $1 billion per year deal to land NFL’s Thursday Night Football package.

He mentioned Amazon while detailing how UFC plans to work with potential partners on the perfect package when it comes to its next broadcast rights deal starting in 2026.

“I think speaking for Dana [White] and Ari [Emanuel], I would tell you we’re going to be very flexible in the next negotiation, just like we were in this one,” Shapiro said. “We sold our pay-per-view rights after all those years with the UFC doing month-to-month pay-per-views through DirecTV and cable, we ultimately sold those rights to ESPN. Before that, we were in conversations to do that with Amazon. We ultimately went with ESPN, but we got pretty far down the road with Amazon.

“Now it’s an evolved landscape, as we’ve discussed. ESPN is on the verge of launching their own direct-to-consumer flagship. Peacock is trying increase their penetration. Paramount+ is using sports to increase their penetration. We’ve talked about Apple, Amazon, YouTube, a lot of healthy places for us to be. But we will be flexible so we are giving any perspective partner or current partner the best programming for the most ideal windows so that they can grow their base and retain their [subscriptions]. Very important.”

The biggest bombshell that Shapiro dropped during that conversation was the possibility that a future broadcast partner could potentially pony up enough money to purchase not only the UFC’s television rights, but the entire pay-per-view package.

In fact, Shapiro suggested that could be something ESPN might want to explore as the network prepares to launch its own standalone streaming service in 2025.

“If I, for example, was launching direct-to-consumer flagship ESPN, I might think about just buying out the pay-per-view and putting it right on that flagship channel,” Shapiro said. “Like you can only get it, just like ESPN+, if you have flagship.

“If you’re trying to launch ESPN flagship and whatever they might call it, that’s the working title, and you’re trying to charge $29, $39.99, whatever it might be, what better than to have a monthly quote-unquote pay-per-view that sits exclusive to that platform. Now, we haven’t had those conversations with ESPN, but that’s just an example of the kind of flexibility that we’re going to bring to the conversations.”

What that means is a potential broadcast partner like ESPN would pay UFC a substantial amount of money and then possibly put pay-per-view events like the upcoming UFC 302 card or Conor McGregor’s return at UFC 303 on a streaming service, where consumers paying a monthly subscription fee would already have access to the card without forking over an additional $79.99 (the current cost for a UFC pay-per-view).

That’s what Netflix did with the upcoming boxing match between Jake Paul and Mike Tyson, which streams live for all subscribers without living behind any other paywall.

Under UFC’s current deal, ESPN serves as the exclusive provider for pay-per-view broadcasts, but viewers have to pay for the ESPN+ streaming service and then an additional fee to watch premium cards like UFC 302 or UFC 303.

Shapiro reiterated that those discussions haven’t happened at ESPN just yet, but it’s obvious that UFC appears open to any and all offers — if the price is right.

“We know we have A-list programming,” Shapiro said. “We know we have premium content. We know we have a volume of premium content. We have enough that will fit many pipes without becoming tonnage. When I look at some other sports, and I’ll leave some brands out, some of them have a really strong postseason, but the regular season, there’s just too much there and it just becomes white noise. We don’t suffer from that. We’re premium content in the regular season, if you will, and we’re double premium, if you will, when you get to those pay-per-views or those premium live events. That’s a good place to be.

“At the same time, we want to be accommodating because it has to both ways. We need these platforms to grow our audience, to grow our brand, to grow our followers globally. They need us for acquisition and retention and price hikes. It should be a very healthy marriage.”

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