The last of our end of year reports sees the UFC head to the headmaster’s office for their grade. Plenty of talking points from an event filled year for the world’s largest promotion.
Attention to detail
2018 was the year of the TV deal in MMA, the biggest of all was the UFC’s main deal stateside with Fox coming to an end and the announcement that the UFC would return to ESPN. For their money ESPN gets 15 exclusive fight cards, Dana White’s Contender series, exclusive pre and post event shows along with the UFC back catalogue of programming. The icing on the cake is the UFC produced content, like Countdown, press conferences and weigh ins. ESPN get a lot for their money. The very first show on ESPN will make history too as Henry Cejudo and TJ Dillashaw will battle it out in the very last men’s flyweight title fight. It’s a great deal for both parties but the UFC have yet to announce any change to fighter pay to reflect this improvement and my intuition tells me they have no intention to, with no collective bargaining agreement in place with their athletes that other major sports enjoy. Bellator are providing a solid alternative for top end fighters but the UFC is still the big show and the place fighters want to showcase their skills.
2018 saw a fundamental change to the UFC for UK viewers when it was announced that Eleven Sports would take over the broadcasting rights, which BT had held since 2013. With numbers of Pay Per View buys in the US and viewing figures in the UK dwindling since the Fertitta brothers sold the organisation, this was a bold move. To take the UFC from one of the two largest sporting television providers and move it to an online only streaming service could potentially have plunged the numbers further. Eleven Sports ultimately failed before the deal came into play and the UFC returned to BT with a new deal. This, I believe, is extremely fortuitous as BT is a safe pair of hands. The UK doesn’t have the Pay Per View culture that the US does, and the Eleven format of online streaming wasn’t one that was tested in the UK. Ultimately, I think Dana and the UFC got lucky but suspect decision making like that has been their calling card this last year. BT had openly stated “We won’t bid any more than the rights are worth to us.” Financially this deal made sense, but strategically, it was a poor move.
The UFC have declined to renew Jimmy Smith’s contract, which is a real head scratcher. Losing Mike Goldberg was a blow but Jimmy Smith coming in cushioned that somewhat but, for whatever reason, they haven’t utilised him nearly as much as expected. Joe Rogan is the king of the mountain as far as colour commentary goes and it seems they have decided that Jimmy is surplus to requirements with others emerging such as Daniel Cormier, Paul Felder, Michael Bisping, Dominick Cruz and Dan Hardy all having provided us with excellent coverage. The question still remains though, why bring him in in the first place? Jimmy Smith will find a home somewhere else but is he likely to get a return to Bellator? Was this a case of hurting a rival rather than actually wanting Jimmy Smith?
UFC are the world leader as far as social media and branding are concerned. The promotion of the 25th anniversary and return to the original logo were a nice touch for old fans and new. The network of analysts and commentators they have accumulated including many current fighters are a massive draw on twitter and message boards across the world, with fans being engaged and informed. I don’t think they can do much more here, though the Pick Em’s fight prediction fantasy league getting the axe was a personal disappointment! A regular fixture of any UFC event over the past few years.
UFC events are generally very well attended, especially outside of the US and the American time zones. For Pay Per Views the main concentration is in United States and Canada, the primary market for buys. The UFC doesn’t need to fill a large arena to make money. With European, Australian and Asian shows, the need to fill arenas is greater because there isn’t the Pay Per View money, but they do this consistently as is the demand of the product. They have yet to move in Africa or the Middle East and don’t appear in a rush to do so; with Brave’s emergence in these areas they may well have missed the boat so to speak. The only areas of real disappointment with attendance has been with TUF finales. The recent Heavy Hitters finale only drawing in 2,020 fans. Pay Per View buys are perhaps a better instrument to assess where the UFC has gone in 2018. 2017 saw the UFC lose around 4.5 million buys on the previous year. 2016 they clocked up 8.21 million, compared to 3.71 million sales in 2017. UFC 229 Khabib vs. Conor McGregor almost beat the previous year’s buy rate by itself, selling 2.4 million. With McGregor focussed on his boxing match the previous year it’s easy to understand why he is the darling of the UFC, despite some regrettable antics in the run up to the fight and after. This goes a long way to explain why the UFC has been leaning more towards ‘money fights.’ They are a business first and foremost, but hardcore and long term fans can understandably be somewhat disenfranchised with this as the ranking system seems less and less important.
UFC have not had a great year by their standards, but admittedly they have been the top of the pile for such a long time that not every year is going to promise growth in an ever more competitive market. The dolly incident, and subsequent promotion of the fight using it, followed by the scenes at the end of UFC 229 were distasteful in the opinion of many, including myself. Paul Daley saw his UFC career cut short for behaviour that didn’t really even come close when he punched Josh Koscheck after the bell. This has exposed double standards in the organisation that seem to be occurring more frequently. As mentioned previously, a major selling point for UFC compared to boxing was that the best fought the best, no politics around matchmaking and rival promoters. That era seems to have come to an end, money fights are now the trend. Another first was USADA leniency towards Jon Jones due to information he provided. There are many conflicting reports but I have yet to see the UFC defend an individual so vehemently over the science of a failed drug test. Frank Mir tested positive for a similar offense, served 2 years and no explanation of picograms ever entered into the public arena. Amanda Nunes celebrating with Dana White after her incredible finish in the last Pay Per View of the year goes further to suggest there is some kind of favouritism with the top brass. Put in context with White’s derogatory comment likening Cris Cyborg to ‘Wanderlei Silva in high heels’ isn’t a good or professional look.
Overall Mark C
2018 was tough one for UFC fans, we had the pleasure of some amazing matchups and none can argue UFC lead the way as far as product and talent by a considerable distance. It was strewn with issues though like the Dolly incident. Alvarez vs. Gaethje, Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt, DJ vs. Cejudo, Korean Zombie vs Yair Rodriguez, Gaethje vs. Poirier, Burgos vs. Kattar, Namajunas vs. Joanna and Nunes Cyborg are just some of the incredible highlights of the year that are noteworthy in a stacked list.
Issues such as these need to be addressed but it is a difficult balancing act with money being the bottom line in the organisation. The new ESPN TV deal will boost the UFC and hopefully they’ll recognise the need for positive self-promotion with either collective bargaining or at least a restructured pay deal for fighters coming in the near future.