The UFC has produced 19 pay-per-view fight cards during its relationship with ESPN, which began 20 months ago in January 2019. Seven of those were held thus far in 2020, with four of them happening since its May 9 return from a break caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Three of the five largest pay-per-views have come during the coronavirus era, which is a strong sign that the partnership is continuing to grow despite the struggling U.S. economy and massive job loss caused by the pandemic.
“What we’re finding is that the UFC continues to grow on our platforms,” Matt Kenny, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, told Yahoo Sports. “There is always competition and we want to provide consumers the most choice and we want to serve as broad and diverse an audience as possible. The UFC is obviously a big part of that. We’re proud of how it’s performed and continues to perform throughout this pandemic.”
UFC TV ratings surge while other sports mostly flat
It’s not just the UFC’s pay-per-views that are performing well. Executives are thrilled with the ratings the UFC delivers on ESPN’s cable channels, while it also has added good streaming numbers on ESPN+.
ESPN does not release streaming numbers of ESPN+, but its television ratings are available via Nielsen. The UFC is the only sports entity that has remained consistent or grown with its pre-pandemic television ratings.
A great example is the performance on ESPN of the UFC 252 preliminary bouts on Aug. 15. From 6-10 p.m. ET, the UFC aired prelims on ESPN as an inducement for fans to buy the pay-per-view.
It faced plenty of competition from other sports, but also from combat sports. Its lead-in was a Top Rank boxing card from England. While it was on ESPN, it went head-to-head with a boxing card on Showtime and a boxing card streamed on DAZN.
Top Rank’s card, which featured Carl Frampton and Michael Conlan in separate bouts, averaged 264,000 viewers and peaked at 427,000. The UFC preliminaries, according to Nielsen, grew seven percent in the first 15 minutes and 87 percent in the first hour following the completion of the Top Rank broadcast.
DAZN doesn’t release its streaming numbers, but according to Nielsen, Showtime averaged 169,000 viewers and peaked at 198,000. Notably, Showtime registered a zero among men 18-34. While there were viewers in that age group, if the number falls below the threshold of 1,000 it registers statistically as zero since Nielsen measures to the nearest thousand.
UFC’s numbers crushed all of those. It averaged 831,000 and peaked at 1.2 million. The final hour of the broadcast averaged 1 million viewers. ESPN ranked No. 1 among cable networks in the time slot in which the UFC 252 preliminaries were on among adults 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54 and men 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54.
On that day, there were a lot of sports on television, including on broadcast TV. An NBA game on ABC drew 1.9 million total viewers. A Major League Baseball game on Fox delivered 1.8 million and the third round of the PGA Tour event on CBS averaged 1.5 million.
But UFC president Dana White said there is a big distinction between those sports and the UFC, which goes beyond the fact that they were on over-the-air broadcast networks and UFC was on cable. The UFC is airing its preliminary cards against that competition, not its main card with its most notable athletes.
“You’re talking about those sports, they had all of their big stars on,” White said. “If you watch the Lakers, well, you’ll see LeBron [James]. But our preliminaries are our lesser known fighters. We’re going against them not with our biggest names but with fighters we are trying to develop and provide exposure for.”
ESPN: UFC audience growth is sustainable
It’s a trend ESPN has seen since the pandemic began. The four pay-per-view preliminary cards during the pandemic -- UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida, on May 9; UFC 250 in Las Vegas on June 6; UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi on July 12; and UFC 252 in Las Vegas on Aug. 15 -- averaged 1.173 million viewers across ESPN and ESPN+.
That is up 30 percent from the pay-per-view preliminary card average in 2019. But it’s even more significant considering that during the pandemic, ESPN has been showing four hours, not two as in the past, of UFC preliminaries. That cuts into the ratings and drops the average, making the numbers that much better.
This comes at a time when cable networks are hemorrhaging subscribers. ESPN peaked at just over 100 million subscribers in 2011. In 2013, it was 99 million, according to research by NextLevel.finance. It has declined every year since and was at 83 million in 2019.
Since the pandemic began, not counting Saturday’s show in Las Vegas headlined by a bantamweight match between Frankie Edgar and Pedro Munhoz, the UFC has had a total of 22.7 million viewers on ESPN networks.
During the COVID-19 era from May through the present, it averaged 792,000 viewers a minute, an increase of 16 percent from last year at the same time.
Undoubtedly, part of that is due to the pandemic and that for all of the spring and much of the summer, there were no other sports on television for people to watch.
The UFC has remained steady in its ratings among its base demographics, which is men 18-34 and men 18-49. But it has seen a sharp demographic increase among older viewers (adults 35-54 and adults 55+), women and Hispanics.
Kenny said he believes the audience growth is sustainable.
“We believe there is a lot of momentum behind the UFC at the moment,” Kenny said. “It’s important to acknowledge the incredible effort the UFC put forth to stage events during this time. It truly is remarkable to see what they’ve been able to do, the quality of the fights that they have consistently delivered and the unique events and experiences that they’ve created for fans with Fight Island being a wonderful example of that.
“So we believe that fans who may not have been inclined to watch the UFC before have been exposed to it, and we believe that as we head into the fall that the UFC is going to continue to ride this wave of momentum.”
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