UFC poised for optimal growth as ESPN finally enters the Octagon

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Henry Cejudo, shown here ahead of his flyweight title fight vs. Demetrious Johnson on Aug. 4, 2018 in Los Angeles, headlines UFC’s ESPN debut on Saturday vs. T.J. Dillashaw. (Getty Images)
Henry Cejudo, shown here ahead of his flyweight title fight vs. Demetrious Johnson on Aug. 4, 2018 in Los Angeles, headlines UFC’s ESPN debut on Saturday vs. T.J. Dillashaw. (Getty Images)

On Nov. 12, 2011, the day that the UFC made its debut on Fox with a heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, it was competing with a pay-per-view boxing card in Las Vegas headlined by Manny Pacquiao.

On Saturday, the UFC will open the ESPN era with a flyweight title fight between champion Henry Cejudo and bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. And yes, Pacquiao will once again be doing his thing in Las Vegas, taking on Adrien Broner in yet another pay-per-view boxing match at the MGM Grand Garden.

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Despite the similarities, though, things are dramatically different in 2019 after the UFC finished its seven-year run with Fox and transitions to a new rights deal with ESPN with Saturday’s card at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The UFC is infinitely stronger than it was in late 2011, and much of that is due to the exposure it received on Fox. Even though the ratings never approached the 5.7 million peak it received for the Velasquez-dos Santos fight, not only did more U.S. fans than ever see the UFC on Fox, but they got an education in mixed martial arts from Fox’s shoulder programming that they hadn’t gotten before.

The most remarkable thing, perhaps, about the UFC’s Fox era is the broadcast talent it discovered among its fighters. Heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier is in a class all his own, both in the cage and behind the microphone. Cormier is a magnificent broadcaster who helped explain a sometimes difficult-to-understand sport clearly, simply and articulately.

Former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz seems to know what a fighter is going to do before the fighter does. Cormier and Cruz stand out, but so many have excelled at the job like Tyron Woodley, Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping, Paul Felder and Miesha Tate, among others.

They helped make the fanbase more knowledgeable and that impact can’t be underestimated. The UFC still controls the production, and so most of ESPN broadcasting team will be familiar. For Saturday’s debut, it will be Jon Anik doing play-by-play with Cormier doing color. Karyn Bryant will be the studio host with Evans, Bisping and Megan Olivi.

ESPN executives sought out the UFC’s rights even when the network already had an overwhelming amount of live sports rights and had recently entered into a seven-year partnership with Top Rank for boxing coverage.

Saturday’s card will be on both ESPN and its online streaming service, ESPN+. In a twist, though, preliminary fights will be on ESPN before it transitions to ESPN+.

Russell Wolff, the executive vice president and general manager of ESPN+, said it was important for ESPN to be in the UFC business because it is a global sport with a large — and growing — fan base.

Just like it did when Fox launched FS1 in 2012, the UFC is going to help push the growth of ESPN+, which debuted in April.

Partnerships only work, though, if they help both sides and there is little doubt that being on ESPN will enhance the UFC.

One doesn’t need to look much further than the ratings a super lightweight championship boxing match between Maurice Hooker and Alex Saucedo delivered in November.

The fight wasn’t a heavily promoted bout. Neither fighter was widely known by the general audience. It was a one-bout Top Rank card, and it started at nearly midnight Eastern time.

Yet, it did an average rating of 950,000 viewers with a 0.6 household rating, which was 20 percent higher than Top Rank’s 2018 average on ESPN. The fight also peaked at 1.05 million, almost unheard of in this era for a fight of that level going on at the time it did.

The fight followed an NBA game and fans stuck with it and there was not a huge audience decline.

That’s what the UFC can expect when it appears on ESPN.

The broadcasts will look remarkably similar to those on Fox, because UFC is controlling the production and most of the talent will be the same. But the UFC is fishing where the fish are, and figure to be able to nab sports fans who watch ESPN but who haven’t regularly watched UFC shows before.

Top Rank has gotten the kind of marketing push and accompanying shoulder programming that ESPN will give to the UFC, and it’s thrived and attracted a younger audience than boxing traditionally had received.

The UFC already brings that young demographic; ESPN may help it add viewers who are outside of the 18-to-34-year-old demo that has been its lifeblood to this point in its history.

UFC president Dana White often likes to boast about what he plans to do in the future. And he’s done that in recent weeks.

Nothing, though, was more significant for the company than landing a deal with the leading network among sports fans. That’s going to benefit the UFC and its fighters in ways we can’t even imagine, at this point.

“Being on ESPN is going to make me a personality and help me to elevate my brand,” said Cejudo, who in addition to being a UFC world champion also won a gold medal in wrestling at the 2008 Olympics.

The UFC was well-served by Fox, but no television entity will be able to do for the UFC what ESPN will do. Saturday is the start of perhaps the most significant era in the fight promotion’s history.

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