UFC Vegas cards are bad business for the UFC and for ESPN

UFC Vegas events held at their Apex facility don't seem to be generating as many new ESPN+ subscriptions. It's not hard to see why.

By: Trent Reinsmith | 3 months ago
UFC Vegas cards are bad business for the UFC and for ESPN
President Dana White needs to focus on UFC Vegas ESPN+ cards. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Judging from how MMA sites covered combat sports this past weekend, it seems clear that a lot more resources were invested in covering BKFC 41 than UFC Vegas 72. Editors didn’t allocate their staffing on a whim or via coin flip. No, they looked at what was generating interest with the combat sports fans and reacted.

In short, more fans seemed invested in a bare knuckle fight card featuring several former UFC fighters—Luke Rockhold, Mike Perry, Chad Mendes, Eddie Alvarez, Bec Rawlings, and Ben Rothwell—at the top of the marquee than an Apex event with one meaningful fight in Yadong Song vs. Ricky Simon.

That fact must not be lost on the world’s largest MMA promotion, its ownership group, Endeavor, or the promotion’s broadcast partner, ESPN.

UFC and ESPN+ growth

In 2018, the UFC and ESPN announced they had struck a deal that, according to reporting at the time, was worth $1.5 billion. The agreement between the two entities called for ESPN to broadcast 30 events on the ESPN family of networks, including ESPN+. Additionally, ESPN would carry the prelims for 12 ESPN+ streaming pay-per-view events.

In the first few years of the deal with ESPN, the UFC was a significant driver of subscription growth for ESPN+. Between the first quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2022, ESPN’s streaming service subscriptions increased from 1. 4 million to 21.3 million.

In 2021, ESPN VP of Programming and Acquisitions and Head of Combat Sports & Basketball Matt Kenny told Sports Business Journal, “We believe UFC is on the rise and has been for some time. …If your hunch is there’s something special about this partnership, you’re right—there is.”

UFC and ESPN+ growth slows

While the partnership between ESPN and the UFC, which was extended for an extra two years, flourished during the early days of the deal, growth has slowed over the past year.

The number of ESPN+ subscribers went from 21.3 million in the first quarter of 2022 to 24.9 million in the first quarter of 2023. While subscriptions jumped from 22.8 million for the third quarter of 2022 to 24.3 million in the fourth quarter of last year, the subscriber count only increased by 600,000 from the final quarter of 2022 to the first quarter of this year. That number represents one of the slightest bumps since ESPN signed on to carry UFC events.

The days when the promotion added a reported 568,000 new subscribers in one weekend seem to be a thing of the past.

UFC Vegas cards concentrate on quantity over quality

Over the past two weeks, the UFC has staged two events, UFC Vegas 71 and UFC Vegas 72, for a total of 22 fights. Of the 44 competitors on those UFC Vegas cards, only four were listed in the official rankings at the time of the events. Those four fighters competed in the main events of those UFC Vegas cards.

With the push to stage an event nearly every week, the promotion is far more focused on filling its fight cards than presenting events that will draw eyeballs to those cards. That’s especially true regarding the UFC Vegas/Fight Night cards the promotion offers on ESPN+.

That approach does not attract new fans to the cards. For hardcore fans that have already subscribed, they know they can catch the fights the want to see via their ESPN+ subscriptions at their leisure.

Fight Nights were once appointment viewing. That’s no longer the case.

Retaining subscribers vs. generating subscribers

With the number of ESPN+ subscribers still growing, albeit slower than in the past, the UFC and ESPN both need to look at their relationship and devise a plan to change the current trajectory of that subscriber count.

The easiest solution, at least on paper, is for the UFC to deliver better fight cards to ESPN+ and promote those events with additional vigor.

There are a set number of fans who will buy anything UFC related. However, it just might be that the promotion and ESPN have reached the tipping point in regard to those hardcore fans.

Retaining its base of rabid fans won’t be hard. After all, without ESPN+ those fans cannot purchase the promotion’s pay-per-view cards. However, converting casual fans into hardcore fans that want to fork over the $9.99 a month or $99.99 per year for an ESPN+ subscription could become a chore without a change in direction from the promotion.

The UFC needs to give those casual fans a reason to pay money to see events on ESPN+. Having multiple fights that mean something in the rankings on each card is one way to do that. Another way is to provide the fans with a reason to invest their time and effort into following specific fighters, something the UFC has always been loathe to do. A third way would be to invest the time and money to promote the events and the stories behind them on other ESPN broadcasts.

The future

In March, Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel was bullish on the future of UFC’s broadcast rights, “We have a great relationship with ESPN, love our relationship with them, and we have a year left until we can start our renewal,” Emanuel said. “I think it’s going to be a positive outcome for both parties but there’s a lot of buyers out there.”

With a year to go before the UFC can start looking at its next deal, Emanuel and president Dana White need to be concerned with the slowing growth of ESPN+ subscribers. If those numbers stay where they are, Endeavor might just have a hard time picking up a substantial increase in broadcast rights. In addition, potential partners, who could get in a bidding war with ESPN to drive up the price, are going to want to see exponential growth in numbers. Without a change in direction, that growth might not be on the horizon for the UFC.

A recent Forbes report noted the sustainability of cost inflation in sports media rights, picking out the UFC alongside other high value sports properties. UFC rights fees reportedly run at $300 million for Fight Night & prelim content, along with another $200 million in PPV fees. The profit & loss (P&L) cost of running UFC content for ESPN lands at $534 million in 2023 with an expected increase of 8% annually. That number could easily feel that much more unsustainable if the UFC doesn’t stop going through the motions on quality control.

In April 2022, White was riding high on how the partnership between the UFC and ESPN was going, “…the ceiling on this thing is so crazy, it’s difficult to wrap your head around what it might become,” said White. A year later, it appears the UFC needs to wrap its head around the fact that it might have hit that ceiling.

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About the author
Trent Reinsmith
Trent Reinsmith

Trent Reinsmith is a freelance writer based out of Baltimore, MD. He has been covering sports for more than 15 years, with a focus on MMA for most of that time. Trent focuses on the day-to-day business of MMA — both inside and outside the cage — for Bloody Elbow.

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