UFC COO: ‘Tech giants like Apple pushing into sport is great for our rights value’

  • UFC’s current US broadcast deal expires in 2025
  • The MMA ad benefits from exposure on the channel’s linear and digital TV products

Lawrence Epstein, the Chief Operating Officer of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), says digital gamers like Apple pushing into live esports will increase the value of their rights.

Endeavor’s mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion is currently in a five-year deal with Disney, which was signed in 2019 for a fee of $1.5 billion. The deal initially allowed ESPN to stream 15 of the MMA promotion’s events live and exclusively through its ESPN+ streaming service, which will be complemented by additional programs shown on its TV, social and digital platforms. ESPN+ has since also become the exclusive home of UFC pay-per-view (PPV) events in the United States.

With the current deal set to expire in 2025, Endeavor President Mark Shapiro said in November that it would consider starting talks on a renewed deal “sooner rather than later.” Without going into the current state of the discussion, Epstein told SportsPro that ESPN has “absolutely delivered for us” so far, but also emphasized how streamers’ growing interest in live sports will increase the value of his rights.

“We love the relationship with ESPN and The Walt Disney Company,” he said. “There is no doubt that what they have done for us in the US market is truly groundbreaking.

“Honestly, anyone who had concerns about working with the UFC, I think that flew out the window when Mickey Mouse and The Walt Disney Company decided to work with us.

“With Apple and so many other digital streamers getting into esports, we certainly think it’s great for our brand and great for the value of our rights. We’ll see how things go in terms of overtime, but what I focus on every day is performance for ESPN. I can tell you they absolutely deliver for us.”

The decline in cable TV subscriptions has impacted Disney, with ESPN’s reach now down to around 74 million homes in the US. Disney CEO Bob Iger has admitted that it was “inevitable” that ESPN would become a full direct-to-consumer (DTC) service, as the New York Post recently reported would happen in the next few years. According to Epstein, exposure on both linear television and ESPN+ has benefited the UFC tremendously.

“We’re already doing both, which we think are great,” he said. “We’ve really grown the fan base and the attention we’re getting on their linear platforms is incredible.

“And the digital ecosystem they deliver is by far the best in the United States. We’re really an anchor tenant for ESPN+ and as a result we’re getting a lot of marketing and attention from the ESPN machine to drive this forward. That’s really important to us, to get our brand in front of a much, much wider audience.

“So what we have now with ESPN is pretty ideal.”

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