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The Ronda Rousey effect: How high will the price tag be for ESPN to snatch UFC from Fox Sports?

By Zach Arnold | August 4, 2015

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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.

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.

Topics: Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 11 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

11 Responses to “The Ronda Rousey effect: How high will the price tag be for ESPN to snatch UFC from Fox Sports?”

  1. 45 Huddle says:

    ESPN is most at risk of the cord cutters. They have already lost over 2 Million subscribers over the last year.

  2. MMALOGIC says:

    the price for Zuffa’s built out TV inventory will be around 200m a year. If you compare it eyeball to eyeball for what other sports properties are getting from Fox and Espn 200m is a bargain.

    With the PPV inventory the price will be over 350m a year unless the ppv distributors cut back on their share which they’ve begun doing ever since wwe left. Vegas site fees are also going up making it even costlier to buy that ppv inventory from Zuffa.

    Both ESPN and FOx are gunning for the UFC. NBC sports doesnt have the room whereas FS1 and 2 are very dependent on the UFC and ESPN has nothing on saturday nights besides college football season (and they may even lose 1st tier rights to big ten football to either CBS or Fox this coming year which is the last available major sports property til 2022 besides the UFC).

    by the time the current UFC/Fox deal expires Zuffa will have built out the TV inventory to around 50 events a year (more divisions and titles will be added) plus they’ll also be selling the 1 week tape delay rights for every ppv.)

    The price will be around 200m a year for the TV inventory. If a bigger package cant be worked out for the live numbered events Zuffa will obviously prefer espn due to better exposure to sell the numbered events on ppv/fightpass (other monetary considerations for he deal being equal).

    The advantage fox has is they can offer to start the new deal earlier. Fox is going to try to sign a new deal next year which means Zuffa would have to say no to alot of money for 2 years (assuming the same projected deal with espn is even available in 2 years).

    This is essentially what ZUffa does to keep talent.

    Zuffa may be willing to sit 1 year but not likely to sit 2.

    Fox has the broadcast compnonent and the rsn’s. ESPN has the better 24 hour sports network. They both have the money and the incentive but Fox has the exclusive negotiating window until the end of 2017 and the content locked in till the end of 2018 which means they have the upper hand in winning the rights on the next deal.

    If Fox cant secure a deal by the end of 2016 then Zuffa will likely wait a year and shop it out.

    Whether or not Fox can get the deal done in 2016 ESPN will at a minimum make Fox Sports pay top dollar for it.

    espn and turner had to pay 180% more for the NBA in order to keep it. Nascar rights doubled even though ratings dropped 50% since early 200’s. Sports rights jump big every time a new deal is signed because you create more sports content the way you can comedies, dramas or reality shows. Zuffa is going to get around 200m a year for the TV inventory if not more.


    ufc is a psychotic property with big swings in quality. Sometimes its hot sometimes its not(mostly not) Going from junkpile to superficially interesting to the women.

    On one hand thats exactly what espn wants, but once RR leaves in a year or two they will be left holding a flaming bag of crap covered with reebok labels.
    What fighter other than Conner can they promote as a star? Probably only monkey face van sant could come close, if she keeps improving.

    And regarding danas claim of not offering the fight to cyborg, yeah right. He states that a fight between cyborg and rr would do 2 mil ppv, but later claims he never even offered cyborg the fight?


    Its sell time. UFC has sold its soul with the reebok rip off, you can count ufc stars on one hand, RR is going to be gone in 2 years max, the steroids are being phased out, ufc cannot expand anymore without losses. Most ufc fighters AREN’T happy with the management such as it is. And the visual of everyone wearing the same clothing is incredibly unappealing for everyone with eyes.

    Who will they sell to? Reebok? espn? comcast?

  5. 45 Huddle says:

    Big Media just took a huge hit in the stock market. Cord Cutters, like I have been saying for a while, are making a dent in their profits. And the biggest concern in the industry isn’t actually the cord cutters. It is the current youth of America who is growing up on Youtube, Netflix, HBO Now, and video games and have zero interest in cable (outside of a few shows).

    Right now sports stations are paying through the roof for sports content because they are trying to keep all of this content on cable only. However…. ESPN has said within 5 years they will offer a stand alone service. The sports landscape is going to be so different in 5 to 10 years as the typical guaranteed money from cable goes down and they look for other revenue streams.

    The smartest guy here was Vince McMahon. Yes, he took a hit to his company by making the WWE Network. It was a short term lose that was a necessary step long term. He got into streaming before a lot of the major players did. Which means he attracted a lot of potential subscribers before there was too much competition. If he tried the WWE Network in 5 years, it would have done much worse due to the competition.

    Even with RAW, he has it available on Hulu the next day to give an access point to young viewers without cable.

    I just don’t get the sense that the UFC has this same vision as Vince does. In an age when everything is going online, they seem to be going more and more with cable…. Not exactly a great long term strategy…

  6. Alan Conceicao says:

    To reverse fortunes, the UFC needed to create stars instead of only the brand. They needed to make smart rematches of great fights. Basically they needed to do the two core things they had refused to do for years and years and years. Now they’ve done it, and they’re reaping the benefits.

    I don’t think this makes the bad cards better; anyone thinking the floor raised on Mighty Mouse PPVs when ratings for the TV shows are pretty much all stable or still falling is, at best, an unpaid shill. You’ll probably still see sub-200K buyrates there like always. But they have big events and people with buzz. Had they waited much longer, they might have exited the point where that was a possibility and become a full on fad.


    At this point the UFC without enough new material, like tv, is beginning to show reruns. Most main/co main events are rematches that not many fans want.

    All the lighter than LW and womens fighters are paid a fraction of the ww and higher weights. The majority of fights this year have been at LW or lighter. Thats a major cost cutting maneuver, not a star making move.


    LOL steroid cheats are coming up short and looking weak and tired.
    tibau, belfort now eric silva, I wonder what excuse Overoid will use after he gets ko’d by santos?


    So what is RR making per fight now?
    If its less than $1,000,000 she is getting ripped off. If the ppv #’s are correct, she brings in to my estimation approx 500,000 to 750,000 views per ppv. She has literally pulled ufcs crap out of the toilet!

  10. Casey says:

    They’re not doing it themselves, they’re going to the Russians to do the same thing.
    What do you believe have been the obstacles to reaching your
    healthy goals. I obviously can’t go to all those different campuses whenever I want to buy fan apparel, so I shop for
    my official NCAA football gear online.

  11. rst says:

    Lol @ carls junior.

    I’ve promised myself to stop following MMA a few times, I guess I’m just stuck now.


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