After years of being treated like sports lepers by the larger television broadcasting world, MMA fans have become a pretty desirable bunch. Most of us sit inside the most desirable advertising demographic, but more importantly: we go where the action is. That means we’re willing to jump through hoops most other sports fans won’t, be it ordering the premium sports package with FOX Sports 2 or TSN 5 (ugh), or shelling out a bunch of money for several pay-per-views a year.
The UFC’s new deals with ESPN are pretty much built off the back of this reality. They need to build up their streaming numbers on ESPN+, and what better way than with hardcore UFC fans? Things have apparently been going so well already that ESPN+ just became the exclusive seller of UFC pay-per-views in America. That means you need an ESPN+ account to order all the big events!
At last count, the press pegged ESPN+ subscriptions at over 2 million. Big UFC events pull in 600,000 buys and tend to hit a million buys or more once or twice a year. That’s a lot of potential people signing up for ESPN+. But it could also hurt UFC event viewership, especially when the system doesn’t work right. Former UFC heavyweight turned podcast empire guru Brendan Schaub shared his frustrations with the debut UFC 236 PPV ordering experience.
“Did anyone else have problems with ESPN+?” Brendan Schaub asked in his latest Below The Belt podcast. “I have all the family around, we got food and everything. Everyone ready? Here we go. Click. It goes ‘This service does not work on this device.’ I’m like ‘Ok, well, that’s not good.’ I try doing it again. Nothing. I try doing it from my phone. Nothing.”
After the event, White admitted there was a hiccup that kept fans from ordering through the various ESPN+ apps. You had to order the event through a website, and then it would show up as purchased on the app and you could watch it there.
“When you work with ESPN-Disney, there’s no hiccups,” Schaub declared. “Especially when the UFC goes ‘Guess what! This is the only way to watch the UFC.’ There can be no hiccups.”
“ESPN! UFC! I’m trying to give you 80 bucks,” he continued. “And then finally I went ‘Yo, if I don’t figure this out in five minutes, I’m going to turn to the dark side and have to illegally stream this.’ I must’ve had 2000 DMs with different links. When I clicked on a link, the thing was better quality than I had on my f**king thing than ever!”
Schaub didn’t just rag on the customer experience. He also looked at it from a fighter’s perspective. Forcing UFC fans to sign up for ESPN+ is pretty genius from a corporate synergy point of view, but it comes at the cost of exposure for the fighters.
“What’s best for the fighters? What’s best for Stylebender and Kelvin Gastelum and Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier is getting as many eyeballs on their fights as possible. Not limiting, making people pay behind two paywalls so you’re getting this very small number of diehards that are going to tune into this thing. That’s not the best thing for the fighters. You’ve just lost so many casual fans. Cuz you know what my dad did when I couldn’t figure it out? He went ‘Who cares? It’s too much. I’m out.’”
On the plus side, there’s evidence that ESPN’s platform is making a difference exposure-wise, with some prelim ratings getting huge bumps from strong lead-in events. Shoulder programming (those 30 and 60 minute hype shows) is also getting lots of play, and speaking as someone whose gym is always playing ESPN, I’m seeing a ton of UFC content.
How will it turn out in the end? We’ll have to see how ESPN and UFC handle things. Better implementation and some more aggressive pricing like we’ve seen with Disney+, and Dana White’s promise that this is great for the fans and fighters could be true.