UFC’s relationship with ESPN appears to have worked out very well for the promotion. Just a few months into their initial five-year deal, UFC and ESPN extended their partnership by an additional two years. Both ESPN and UFC seem very happy with the way things have gone, but is it better for fans?
Late last year, I put out a wishlist of things I’d like to see from the new partnership. At the top of that list was for ESPN to air the fights earlier. It didn’t take long for ESPN to start doing this, and now most main cards for non-PPV events start at 8 or 9 eastern, a true gift to tired MMA fans.
One criticism of events that aired on FS1 was the pacing of the shows. UFC on FS1 main cards seemed to just drag on and on, often going well past the three-hour mark, meaning east coast fans had to stay up until nearly 2 AM to catch the main event live. TSN’s Aaron Bronsteter posited last week that the pacing of UFC events has improved since moving to ESPN. But is this really the case, or does it just feel better since the cards are so much earlier? I crunched the numbers to find out.
It's 8:37 pm ET and there are only four fights left on the main card.
There is virtually no downtime between each bout.
The upgrade from UFC on FOX to UFC on ESPN is like the upgrade from Street Fighter 1 to Street Fighter II.
— Aaron Bronsteter (@aaronbronsteter) November 17, 2019
So to determine if the pacing was better, I looked at all UFC main cards from 2018, UFC’s final year with Fox and all of the events so far in 2019 under the ESPN banner.
And what do we mean by pacing? To me, and for the purposes of this tiny study, that means how quickly can we get the show over with. For that reason, we are only going to look at main cards, as even if prelims move quickly, the main card isn’t going to start until the advertised time.
As a general rule of thumb, UFC typically “budgets” 30 minutes of broadcast time for each fight. That means a typical Fight Night card would have six fights over three hours. PPVs are the exception to this rule with 5 fights, and they have also been very loose with their three-hour window, running long more often than not, especially since moving PPVs to ESPN+.
With 39 events in 2018 under the Fox banner, UFC main card broadcasts averaged 174.2 minutes per broadcast, just short of three hours. This is slightly shorter than the 2019 average of 179.1 minutes on ESPN but these numbers are misleading. Under Fox, UFC ran five events on the main Fox network and five Fight Pass exclusive events. All ten of these shows had four-fight main cards and were closer to two-hour run-times which brought the average down.
The number that will truly tell how fast UFC pacing is how many minutes of TV time are taken up by each fight on average. In 2018, each fight took up an average of 34.2 minutes of TV time, while in 2019 UFC main fights take up an average of 32.6 minutes of TV time. So, on average, the pacing is marginally better since moving to ESPN, but they still have trouble getting 6 fights done inside of three hours.
Now both sets of numbers include PPV events. If we take those out of the equation, 2018 fights used up an average of 32.4 minutes while 2019 fights averaged 31.1 minutes. So despite not having commercial breaks for international markets to worry about, PPV events actually hurt the pacing average on both Fox and ESPN.
All this to say, the idea of “FS1 pacing” or “ESPN pacing” doesn’t seem to be a thing. Instead, there is UFC pacing which has slightly improved since moving over to ESPN, but that could just be dumb luck with shorter fights (I haven’t looked into if there have been more finishes in 2019).
The biggest improvement to UFC watchability in 2019 is absolutely the earlier start times. While I’d like to still see UFC speed up the pacing of the events a bit, when you’re starting at 8 PM, the main card running a little long is a lot more forgivable.
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