The case for the UFC on ESPN
Transitioning into 2017, the UFC’s next television deal will be an underlying story over the course of the year.
Throughout the last few months, Sports Illustrated media critic Richard Deitsch and MMA journalist Ariel Helwani have intimated that the UFC views ESPN as their ultimate destination. However, sports media reporter John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal, recently speculated that the UFC would remain with Fox for a less than desired price as ESPN has shown little interest.
While it is tough to doubt the forecasting skills of a credible insider like Ourand, it is also tough to see how ESPN would not have at least some interest in the UFC.
Here are five reasons why the UFC and ESPN can be a good fit.
- Digitally trained consumers. For over a year ESPN has been combating declining cable and satellite subscriptions, with heavy promotion for their WatchESPN streaming service, while also teasing the formation of an additional streaming service. While this might be a foreign concept to the general sports viewer, it is commonplace to the UFC fan. Currently, every UFC event features a portion of the card on the UFC Fight Pass streaming service. If ESPN were to exclusively stream a UFC event, they would absorb the subscribership of at least the ardent UFC base, who are already conditioned to view the UFC via streaming.
- International appeal. Dana White has in the past quipped that the UFC is much bigger than the NFL on a global scale. While he does this somewhat in self-aware hyperbole, he does have a legitimate point. The UFC is has a certain universal appeal that other mainstream sports do not have. Additionally, the UFC has shown the ability to make stars out of non-American athletes. The UFC currently features champions from Brazil, The United Kingdom, Poland, and Ireland. In recent years, ESPN has been aggressively pursuing the acquisition of European soccer leagues as a part of their international expansion; the UFC could serve a smaller but similar purpose.
- Female star power. Over the last several years, ESPN has put a focus on expanding their appeal to the female demographic. ESPN currently has female focused content on ESPNW.com, while also promoting women’s basketball on an admirable level. With the UFC, ESPN would acquire the rights to a brand where male and female competitors are presented on an equal level. While it is unreasonable to expect another Ronda Rousey to come around the corner, it is not uncommon for the UFC to headline a card with female fighters. With the recent addition of a women’s Featherweight Division, expect to see more televised cards featuring women in main event positions.
- Weekly live content. Every UFC critic may point out how the abundance of UFC events dilutes the product. However, this is not a complaint that you will ever her a television executive make. While ratings for live sports may be at a historic low, they are still a valuable commodity. In particular, ESPN has a need to provide content to more platforms than any other sports entity. On linear television alone, ESPN has seven different channels where various degrees of live programing is needed. Unlike other sports leagues, the UFC has no off-season. The UFC could fill a major programming void during the lackluster summer months.
- Celebrity connections. ESPN has never been reluctant to integrate celebrities onto their programming. Referred to as the “ESPN Car Wash,” celebrities and athletes are known to spend an entire day, going from show to show to promote their team or product. With the UFC, ESPN would have a partnership with an organization that is owned by a talent agency. The UFC having celebrities as minority owners is done for instances of media promotion. The platform of ESPN and the star power of WME-IMG could be a perfect promotional mix.
For MMA fans, Shelburne a much better listen than read
For the second time in a year, Ramona Shelburne of ESPN penned an ESPN The Magazine feature profiling Ronda Rousey.
Titled “Something to Fight For,” Shelburne is granted accesses to Rousey’s isolated training camp, while also providing some insight into Rousey’s mindset headed into her December 30 bout with Amanda Nunes at UFC 207.
The piece is well written (Shelburne is among the best active sportswriters), but it also feels rather incomplete and has the tone of a promotional piece for Rousey.
While it is not the absolute pity party that was Shelburne’s December 2015 piece titled “Rousey Says She’s Down But Not Out,” it is an article that is hurt by not being written from a seasoned MMA writer.
Rousey’s dormant acting career, her bizarre appearance at the UFC 205 press conference, her standing in the new UFC landscape where the promotion is now owned by the firm that also represents Rousey, and her position on the recent UFC labor disputes, are either ignored are briefly brushed upon.
The story is written for a mass audience, not an MMA website.
With all that said, Shelburne does have a unique window into the suddenly reclusive Rousey.
To gain a better appreciation of Shelburne’s knowledge of the Rousey world, give a listen to the December 14 edition of the “5ive Rounds Podcast with Brett Okamotto.”
The conversational podcast format allows Shelburne to elaborate on many of the topics that are only vaguely touched on in the piece.
For better or worse, Shelburne is the only current conduit between Rousey and the sports media. Her work is not perfect, but that is a necessary evil for the time being.
More Okamotto on ESPN
Speaking of Brett Okamotto, ESPN recently announced that they have reached an extension agreement with Okamotto.
This is great news for MMA fans.
Okamotto is currently the only MMA reporter on cable television. His weekly appearance on SportsCenter is frequently a source of breaking news.
Additionally, Okamotto provides a healthy dose of interesting MMA content for ESPN.com.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: MEDIA & BUSINESS: Does Dana White say too much to the media? As the face of the company, does playing coy hurt his credibility