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By Zach Arnold | August 4, 2015
Nobody is better in combat sports at generating social media traffic than the UFC & Ronda Rousey. It may not always be the nicest or most pleasant of comments from a rabid 18-to-34 year old demographic, but it’s voluminous.
ESPN decided long ago that they were interested in promoting UFC as much as Fox Sports… and it’s Fox who has the $90 million a year TV contract with Zuffa.
There has been financial pressure exerted on ESPN management by Disney regarding the salaries of on-air personalities. The network has gone all-in with expenditures for live programming. Costs are exploding. The mentality of promoting the brand over the talent won in the end, as Colin Cowherd & Keith Olbermann were shown the door.
There’s a reason ESPN immediately embraced a reported pay-for-play contract with Al Haymon’s PBC. ESPN no longer needed to spend $50,000 here and $50,000 there for filler boxing programming. Haymon paying them was music to the Mouse’s ears. However, automatic loyalty to promoting boxing is not a guaranteed proposition with ESPN. The network has gone all-in with Ronda Rousey. They put up with her PR blitz against Floyd Mayweather and gave her an award over Serena Williams. In Disney-land, Rousey’s a hotter property than Serena is right now.
Combine UFC’s ability to dominate social media traffic with ESPN’s hunger to bring UFC aboard in the future and you end up with the kind of positive coverage we have witnessed on ESPN’s platforms for UFC content in 2015.
When UFC’s contract with Fox expires in a couple of years, ESPN will undoubtedly make an offer to steal UFC away from Fox Sports 1. Whether ESPN will pay $90 million a year to UFC is one question, but it’s entirely another question to ask whether or not UFC sees an opportunity to offer programming for both networks. Will Fox drive a hard bargain at the negotiating table and demand exclusive TV rights or will UFC be able to shop around different programming packages similar to what NASCAR has done in the past?
ESPN never promotes a sports property they don’t have a piece of… except for UFC. Ask the NHL. Ask NASCAR. Ask EPL.
It is clear that Disney wants a piece of the action with UFC and they most certainly want a piece of the action with Ronda Rousey. She appeals to all demographics and hits the marketing sweet spot. Plus, she’s not losing a fight any time soon given the (lack of) depth in the 135 pound division. There is some staying power here.
Listen to how Bob Ryan & Michael Wilbon, two of ESPN’s venerable sports-writing voices, described Ronda Rousey’s place in the general American sports landscape:
“WILBON: Rousey is now 12-0 but more importantly the dominant figure in combat sports today, UFC or traditional boxing. People are comparing her recent fights to those of a young Mike Tyson. I never watch MMA but I’ve paid to watch Rousey and I find her irresistible. No matter what you think of UFC, Bobby, how important in the landscape of sports right now is Ronda Rousey?
RYAN: The big question is, what took her so long? I mean, 34 seconds? She’s had three, 104 seconds, last three bouts. She has become THE touchstone figure in all of sports. She’s what’s everyone is talking about. The other jocks are talking about her. LeBron James is tweeting about her. I even referenced her at the Martha’s Vineyard book festival on Saturday. You can’t ignore her!”
It was interesting to watch the mainstream personalities on ESPN react to Saturday’s fight as opposed to some of the more hardcore reaction, such as Chael Sonnen’s disappointment in the way things turned out with the late time start and the lack of opponent depth. ESPN personalities acknowledged the horrible mistake UFC made with 7 fights on the PPV main card and the late start time, but Rousey’s quick & explosive finish all but sugarcoated the proceedings.
The question UFC has to ask itself is a challenging one: how high is the ceiling for Fox Sports 1 and is it higher than what the ceiling could be for UFC on ESPN?
Right now, UFC has the best of both worlds — they have Fox’s money and exposure with ESPN’s powerhouse marketing apparatus. At some point, ESPN is going to want more than they’re currently getting in return. Is there enough room financially on both sides of the aisle to make a new marriage work? As long as Ronda Rousey is relevant, UFC has options with ESPN. The advertisers can’t enough of her.
— Carl's Jr. (@CarlsJr) August 2, 2015
Ronda’s won every business battle in 2015 but still has some unfinished business with former manager Darin Harvey. A final determination regarding their arbitration proceedings in Los Angeles Superior Court is scheduled for mid-January.