I've spent about 10 weeks playing with UFC Fight Pass, the UFC's new digital streaming service that debuted in January by offering a two-month free trial.
Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, began charging $9.99 on March 1. Despite an offer of free service for media, I have chosen to pay for it out of my own pocket because it's the right thing to do.
In using it on an almost daily basis, and in comparing it to the new WWE Network that I purchased last week, I'm astounded at the level of vitriol that surrounds Fight Pass.
In this review, I'm going to try to explain what it is, who it is for and, most importantly, my experience using the service.
Clearly, it's a better product conceptually than in actuality now, but it's good enough as is that I do not plan to cancel (or accept the free offer).
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For those who don't know, UFC Fight Pass is a digital streaming service that Zuffa officials have tried to position as a Netflix for fight fans.
It's available on desktop computers and for mobile on iOS and Android now. In addition, it's coming to services like Apple TV and Roku within 60 days and plans are in the works to add it to the Xbox and other gaming consoles down the road.
For $9.99 a month, customers get access to the full library of UFC fights as well as fights from other MMA promotions that Zuffa purchased, including Pride, World Extreme Cagefighting, World Fighting Alliance, Strikeforce and Bushido.
Preliminary fights on pay-per-view shows and on cards on one of the Fox networks that were previously on Facebook will now be exclusively on Fight Pass.
Zuffa also added a dozen live fight cards that previously did not exist, and those full cards are on Fight Pass.
Before I get into what I like about the service and the problems I have and have seen with it, let's talk a bit about who this is for and why the UFC is doing it.
This is a service aimed almost exclusively at the hardest of the UFC's hardcore fan base. It's not something designed to develop new fans and it's not for the person who doesn't watch all 12 fights on every card.
This service is for serious fans only.
For UFC, it generates $1 million in gross revenue per month for every 100,000 subscribers, though officials refuse to say how many subscribers there are. It is now available in 178 countries, so it would almost have to be a complete bomb to not be in 100,000 homes already.
After expenses, the UFC figures to make a nice monthly profit from Fight Pass, but that isn't the point of it, either.
Rather, because of the extra cards, Fight Pass does two things for Zuffa: First, it provides another way, similar to "The Ultimate Fighter," to mine and develop new talent.
The significance of that can't be understated. The lifeblood of a company that exists largely on pay-per-view revenues is stars who push the needle and sell tickets and pay-per-views.
That's what TUF did almost immediately, producing fighters like Diego Sanchez, Forrest Griffin, Josh Koscheck, Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping and others who quickly became mainstays.
Additionally, Fight Pass will help the UFC develop the fan base in other countries. Prior to Fight Pass, the start times of events were based upon television in the U.S.
That meant that for a pay-per-view show that started at 10 p.m. in New York, a fan in Rome who wanted to watch had to get up at 3 a.m.
But with Fight Pass, the card will be broadcast live in prime time in the country it is emanating from, allowing it to reach a broader swath of the fan base. This is a long-term move that figures to pay off down the line when it helps bring (and keep) new fans to the sport in these countries.
As for the performance of the service, the quality of the stream, the ease of use and everything else, it's a decidedly mixed bag.
For a point of reference, I have watched Fight Pass at home on my late model iMac and on an iPad Air. I have a 100 Mbps Internet connection at home that is plenty fast enough to stream content without any lag or stutter.
For watching the fight cards live, it is an excellent experience. The quality of the stream is superb. The picture quality is excellent on both computer and iPad.
For a recent Fight Pass event from Brazil, I flipped the stream from my iPad to my 60-inch Pioneer Kuro Elite television using an Apple TV and Apple's AirPlay feature.
It worked instantly, though the picture quality degraded in an odd way. It had a vastly more cinematic feel than if I were watching a live sporting event on my television.
It also increased the delay substantially. When I was watching the show from Brazil on my iPad, I was following reporters via Twitter who were there covering the event. I noticed that when I had Fight Pass on my iPad, there was about a 5-10 second delay between when the reporters would tweet about something and when I'd see it.
However, when I watched via AirPlay, that delay increased to something closer to 45-to-60 seconds. I hardly noticed the 5-10 second delay and it had no impact upon my enjoyment of the card. It was irritating, though, to see the 45-60 second delay.
I'm not sure if that was unique to my situation, and Marshall Zelaznik, the UFC's director of content and the man in charge of Fight Pass, did not know. He was puzzled by it. He could explain the short delay but not the long one.
That was an annoyance and maybe it was just me, though nothing else changed. But it didn't tremendously affect my enjoyment of the service.
What did and continues to affect my enjoyment is the horrendous – and I mean horrendous with a capital "H" – search functionality, particularly on the iPad.
The UFC has chosen not to create a separate website for Fight Pass and has bundled it with UFC.tv, where it sells live pay-per-view shows (Note: You don't get access to the pay-per-views live with a Fight Pass subscription). That creates issues when you click on more recent pay-per-views.
For instance, I signed into Fight Pass and saw a box pushing UFC 170. I wanted to watch Ronda Rousey's fight against Sara McMann from that show, but I was prompted to purchase the pay-per-view.
That show was on Feb. 22, and I fully understand it not being available on Fight Pass so quickly. It would kill the UFC's PPV sales if fans could access a pay-per-view a few days later for a fifth of the price.
Zelaznik said PPV shows will appear on Fight Pass no sooner than 30 days and no more than 90 days after they're over. At that point, they'll become part of the fight library and accessible as part of the $9.99 monthly Fight Pass fee.
That is fair, but it's creating confusion for customers who are being sent to a website that is serving two distinct purposes to see a box promoting a PPV show that is not available to Fight Pass customers.
The UFC should separate Fight Pass from UFC.tv as soon as possible to avoid creating confusion in the marketplace.
That, though, is nothing compared to my dislike of the search functionality. There is a search function on the desktop, albeit not as robust as one would like to see. But it's a bonanza compared to the total lack of search on iPad.
The lack of a search function on iPad makes the presence of the fight library, which I see as one of Fight Pass' best attributes, almost unusable.
The other day, I tried to watch the heavyweight fight from 2011 between Cheick Kongo and Pat Barry on my iPad and it was a maddening experience, to be kind, to try to find it.
To find it, under the menu on the top left side of the iPad app, I clicked on fighters, then heavyweights and then on Pat Barry. His profile popped up on the left side of the screen, and then a smaller box to the right that said "Related videos" appeared.
I clicked on that and found two cards Barry appeared on, an episode of UFC Ultimate Insider and the countdown to UFC 161. There was no Barry-Kongo fight listed (nor any other Barry fights other than his bouts with Shawn Jordan and Stefan Struve).
So I closed Barry's profile and clicked on Kongo. There, I was able to find the fight I wanted. Once I found it, it streamed perfectly and it was an enjoyable experience.
It made no sense, though, that I couldn't find it by looking at Barry. Even worse, there was no search box on the home page where I could have typed in "Pat Barry Cheick Kongo fight," and discovered what I was looking for.
When I didn't find the match by looking at Barry's profile, I thought perhaps it hadn't been uploaded yet. It was only after going the extra step and clicking on Kongo's profile that I found it.
Zelaznik told me that on March 1, Fight Pass had over 5,000 hours of library content and said "within a couple of weeks, everything will be up."
There are multiple problems with the search on the iPad, starting with the lack of an obvious search button on the front page. Then, when you click on a fighter, it brings his profile up from UFC.com. I would much, much, much rather see a list of his fights show up and have a link to his profile. Instead, the profile appears prominently.
That's something I can get for free at UFC.com and don't need to subscribe to Fight Pass to access. Because the fight library access is such a big part of Fight Pass, the first thing that should pop up when I click a fighter's name is a list of the fights from the library.
That is a major failing.
Searching is easier off the desktop than it is on mobile, but it's not perfect. The UFC has some curated content that is interesting, but click on its "Champions" page and look for Ronda Rousey. As of Monday, the woman that UFC president Dana White said is the company's biggest star does not appear on the champions list.
That is being addressed, and I assume that anyone who ever held a UFC belt will be included in this eventually. I understand this is a work in progress, but this seemed like a no-brainer to have up at the start. How Rousey is not on that list from Day One is beyond me.
Here was another oddity: I wanted to watch Anderson Silva-Chris Weidman II from December in the fight where Silva broke his leg. I was prompted to buy the pay-per-view when I searched the desktop for Silva and clicked on that card. However, I was able to watch Rousey-Tate from that same card.
That is bizarre and shouldn't occur, either. It gives the impression that the Silva-Weidman fight isn't going to be posted, though it will be.
"We are currently working on adding the search function to the iOS experience," Zelaznik said. "It's one of our priorities, as you can imagine, and we are working diligently on this. Building out the apps on different platforms presents their own individual challenges, but we expect to get this done within the coming few weeks."
It's sorely needed.
Overall, I like the Fight Pass experience quite a bit, though I'm not likely to be watching live events at 4 in the morning unless work requires it. But to me, the access to the library is huge and is what will keep me a subscriber.
The quality of the stream on the live fights is tremendous, though I hope the UFC technical team is able to address the issue with the cinematic look of streaming over AirPlay. Hopefully, when the AppleTV app debuts in the next month or so, that will eliminate that issue.
Fight Pass has huge potential, and even now, I'd rate it an 8 or an 8.5 on a scale of 1-10 if the search function was better and that problem with AirPlay was fixed.
But because the search functionality is so poor on the mobile, where I believe the majority of people will watch, I have to significantly downgrade it.
I give it a 5.5 right now because of that issue, though with an asterisk. If you are buying it mostly for the live fights, then the search isn't as big of an issue. But if like me, you are paying for access to the library, it's more of a problem.
It's a good service with the potential to be great, but it's not nearly there yet.
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