UFC-Disney Rights Renewal Talks Nearing Opening Bell, Shapiro Says

The extensive ties between UFC parent Endeavor Group Holdings and Disney mean the media company is likely to be “open to a renewal conversation sooner rather than later,” in the assessment of Endeavor president Mark Shapiro.

As Deadline reports, Disney and the UFC signed a five-year rights deal worth a reported $1.5 billion. The pact took effect in 2019, meaning it is due to expire in a little more than a year. Sports rights in general have continued to surge in the intervening years, and the UFC’s popularity continues

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Speaking at a conference hosted by Wall Street firm RBC Capital Markets, Shapiro noted the many ties between Endeavor, which also owns talent agency WME, and Disney. Those connections provide “a significant amount of leverage,” he said, and make Endeavor “stickier” than other business partners.

The extensive ties between UFC parent Endeavor Group Holdings and Disney mean the media company is likely to be “open to a renewal conversation sooner rather than later,” in the assessment of Endeavor president Mark Shapiro.

Disney and the UFC signed a five-year rights deal worth a reported $1.5 billion. The pact took effect in 2019, meaning it is due to expire in a little more than a year. Sports rights in general have continued to surge in the intervening years, and the UFC’s popularity continues

Speaking at a conference hosted by Wall Street firm RBC Capital Markets, Shapiro noted the many ties between Endeavor, which also owns talent agency WME, and Disney. Those connections provide “a significant amount of leverage,” he said, and make Endeavor “stickier” than other business partners.

“When you have that much business, you have a lot of pressure points,” Shapiro said. “They want to do Jungle Cruise 2 with The Rock,” the exec said by way of example. “I’m not saying we’ll hold it up because we won’t get some other deal,” he said, but the fact that there are multiple touchpoints enhances the chance of a favorable outcome.

As for the UFC, “they love the business,” Shapiro said of Disney. “They love what it’s done for ESPN and ESPN2. They love that it’s the anchor tenant of ESPN+.”

While all those signs point to a renewal, Disney is not the only potential bidder. “We’re patient,” Shapiro said. “The business is going strong, margins are really strong. We see significant upside of all the ancillary businesses. We’d like to give a little more time for the Amazons and the Apples of the world to keep growing.” Along with those tech giants, the exec also name-checked Roku, Pluto and Peacock. “We’re really open-minded,” Shapiro said. “We’re not going to just take the quick increase. We’re going to maximize the real potential here.”

Netflix has recently emerged as a new contender for live sports, exploring a bid for Formula 1 and also looking for other opportunities, especially given their new presence in ad-supported streaming. Endeavor is “in conversations with them about where they can test out sports,” Shapiro said. “We’re not going to be a guinea pig. Time serves us well to kind of wait it out. They’re tiptoeing. They’re dancing.”

The streaming giant is “not going to do some big Apple-MLS deal out of the gate,” Shapiro said, alluding to Major League Soccer’s venture with Apple, which will see the creation of a new subscription streaming entity jointly operated by the tech firm and the league. “They’re much more prudent than that. They’re going to take their time, figure out where there’s a good market where they can grow, figure out a little test, a little under the radar. Get pregnant before they go build a family.”

Beyond the fact that a UFC deal could be more than Netflix could manage as a starting point in live sports, Shapiro added, “I would question, though, are they the right marketing partner? People don’t go to Netflix for sports. They go there for [F1 unscripted series] Drive to Survive. But they don’t go for live events just yet.”

Beyond sports, the streaming marketplace has evolved significantly as major players become “more prudent with their spending decisions,” Shapiro said, but continued demand for top-end talent and projects remains a tailwind for anyone on the sell side of the equation. While Netflix and Disney are unlikely to decrease spending on programming in the near term, all streaming players “are scrutinizing much more” than in recent years. “They’re not going to do as much volume,” instead focusing on programming capable of helping them retain subscribers and attract new ones.

Compared with the go-go phase of just two years ago, as Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, Peacock, Paramount+ and other new players sought to make their presence felt in streaming, “the decision-making process has changed,” Shapiro said. The level of executive empowered to say yes to a pitch back then “was a crime, to our benefit,” he said. “An absolute crime at how low a level [an exec] could be and they’d say, ‘Yes, we’ll buy it, yes we’ll buy it. Now, decisions are going all the way up the chain. So, there’s no overall reduction in spend, but the process is different.”

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