Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is an extremely profitable business, raking in hundreds of millions for its owners and investors. But, there were several points in the promotion’s history where massive failure was very possible. One of those points was when UFC’s television deal with FOX was up, and the world’s leading mixed martial arts (MMA) organization was fishing for a new $450 million deal from a major broadcast company.
It looked like there was no interest from ESPN in picking up the combat sports league. And then a drug scandal completely reshaped the landscape at the top of the sports network.
“I’ll tell you a crazy story,” UFC President, Dana White, said during a one hour interview with Grant Cardone. “You ever hear of John Skipper? John Skipper ran ESPN. Now, I think he runs DAZN. Runs ESPN, beloved, looks like the squarest dude on the planet. Older guy. Hates UFC. Hates it. Hates UFC. Big soccer guy. For whatever reason, people like different things. And I’m not s—ing on John Skipper. But this is a fact, this happened and this is a true story.
“John Skipper, beloved at ESPN, ESPN’s at the top of their game,” White continued. “These guys are killing it in revenue, they’re getting $5 per subscriber when cable was the biggest it’s ever been. So, our FOX deal is up and we’re probably not gonna do another deal with FOX. They’re selling off cable networks and re-structuring. So they’re not the same company when we signed with them. And John Skipper’s never, ever gonna take the UFC. So, we’re in a real tough place.
“John Skipper’s cocaine dealer is gonna rat him out,” White continued. “So he has to tell Disney ‘My cocaine dealer is gonna go public’ or whatever, so he has to step down from ESPN, right at the time we’re trying to make a new TV deal. Who do they make president? Jimmy Pitaro, who ran Yahoo! Sports for years. I’ve known him a long time. He’s a great dude, and he loves the UFC. Now you got him, you got a guy named Kevin Mayer, who is really closed to [Endeavor CEO] Ari [Emanuel], and we ended up doing the ESPN deal when our deal was up.”
“So you want to talk about timing,” White finished “And, you know, what!?”
Skipper’s resignation from ESPN because of the cocaine scandal was confirmed by The Hollywood Reporter back in 2018. That’s the same year UFC and ESPN brokered a monster five-year, $1.5 billion broadcast deal (details here) that would commence on Jan. 1, 2019.
“They threatened me, and I understood immediately that threat put me and my family at risk, and this exposure would put my professional life at risk as well,” Skipper said. “I foreclosed that possibility by disclosing the details to my family, and then when I discussed it with Bob [Iger, then-Disney head], he and I agreed that I had placed the company in an untenable position and as a result, I should resign.”
Dana White tells John Skipper story.pic.twitter.com/HRm656D0jA— Jed I. Goodman © (@jedigoodman) December 21, 2022
“At ESPN I did not use at work, nor with anyone at work, or with anyone I did business with,” Skipper said later in the interview. “I never allowed it to interfere with my work, other than a missed plane and a few canceled morning appointments. I’ve never been a daily user. My use over the past two decades has, in fact, been quite infrequent. I judge that I did a very good job and that it did not get in the way of my work. I worked hard, I worked smart. I worked all the time.”
It’s crazy how different things might be if Skipper’s cocaine dealer hadn’t tried to extort and blackmail him over his drug use. Indeed, UFC might be completely off the major network circuit, hawking pay-per-view (PPV) buys directly through Fight Pass.