UFC's new digital television service is focused firmly on the future
It doesn't have a name. It doesn't have a price. It's not going to be widely available at launch.
Still, the UFC's new digital television service is a major step forward for the company and is an example of ownership's forward-looking view.
The service is designed to be similar to Netflix or Hulu, and ultimately will be able to be found on smart televisions, set-top boxes such as Roku and Apple TV, gaming systems such as Xbox, and iOS and Android devices.
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It's a monthly subscription service that will include live fights and library fights that will feature every match ever held in the UFC, Pride, Strikeforce, World Extreme Cagefighting, Bushido and World Fighting Alliance.
In addition, it will have enhanced all-access coverage of UFC events. The UFC has hired reporter Megan Olivi, who will provide backstage access at news conferences, workouts and the like.
The service is likely only going to appeal to the hardest of the hard-core fan base in the early stages, and the UFC is probably going to struggle to make money on it in the beginning.
But as the yet-unnamed service evolves and becomes more ubiquitous, it's going to play a key role in helping the UFC expand its audience.
"This is driven by content, first and foremost," UFC CEO and co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta told Yahoo Sports. "We feel as a company there is additional demand for our product in these international markets. In order for us to become more relevant on the sports landscape in Europe and Asia, we need to provide live events in prime time in those markets. That will allow us to go to the networks in those markets and sell our content to them, which will allow our casual fans to engage with the fighters and the brand and really get sucked into it."
UFC pay-per-view cards always start at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT no matter where in the world they are held. That is great for the consumer in the U.S., but it's not so hot for the UFC fan in London, Rome and Moscow.
The main event normally begins two to two-and-a-half hours into the show. So, at UFC 168 on Dec. 28 in Las Vegas, that means the middleweight title rematch between champion Chris Weidman and former champion Anderson Silva will begin at roughly midnight ET/9 p.m. PT.
But in London, it will begin at roughly 5 in the morning Sunday. One has to be an extremely dedicated fan to stay up to watch that. In Rome, it would start at 6 a.m., and in Moscow, it would be 9 a.m.
So the idea for the new service, which will be available Jan. 1, is that the UFC will host events in prime time in those international markets and local fans can watch the events at a normal time.
But American fans who are desperate to see the fights won't be shut out. They'll be available live – and then cataloged for later viewing – on the new digital service. The first one will be the Jan. 4 card at the luxurious Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
The highly regarded Marshall Zelaznik was named the UFC's chief content officer and will oversee the new service.
Zelaznik told Yahoo Sports the service won't impact the UFC's existing television agreements with Fox in the U.S.
"Anything that is currently airing on Fox will continue to do so," Zelaznik said. "Nothing that we do with this will impact what Fox does or will be taken away. What, in fact, will actually happen is that this will be a one-stop shop, if you will. If you can't catch it on Fox, live or even on their replay schedule, that program will eventually make it onto this service."
The service is planning unique ways to organize the library fights. Fans will be able to search for a specific fight that they might want to watch, but there are plans, Zelaznik said, to organize them in a way that a fan can see every time a title changes hands.
The UFC plans to go from 33 live events in 2013 to 50 in 2014, and many of those new events will wind up exclusively on the new UFC service. In addition to the debut in Singapore on Jan. 4, the March 8 card in London will be live on the service.
The company's biggest stars fight on pay-per-view, and that's not likely to change. But the London show will feature former light heavyweight title challenger Alexander Gustafsson against Jimi Manuwa and a rematch between Melvin Guillard and Ross Pearson.
Fertitta made clear to matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby that he didn't want the international shows to be filled with unknown fighters.
"Lorenzo's directive was very clear, that these international fight nights, I'll call them, have the same interest or muscle as one of the fight night shows we'd put on in the U.S. or that would air on Fox Sports 1," Zelaznik said.
It's a wise move, because the only way to truly mine international talent is to increase the interest in the various markets. And the way to do that is to have live shows in prime time.
The UFC rode the success of its reality series, "The Ultimate Fighter," and landed dozens of elite fighters.
Much the same can come from the international markets, when the UFC is able to bring a show to town in prime time and create a buzz.
It's a long-term play, but one that could pay off with stars who might otherwise have tried different sports.
And if the service turns out to be popular like some of the services found on set-top boxes such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others, it can also generate another source of income for the UFC.
All in all, it's a win for the company and a shrewd move by Fertitta, even if it may take a while for it to get its footing.