UFC fans in the United Kingdom who pay for ESPN UK on a monthly basis are left out in the lurch this weekend as the premium subscription sports network will not be showing the UFC on Versus 5 Dan Hardy vs Chris Lytle card this Sunday night. And it looks like it's not going to be a one off occurrence either as the official ESPN UK Facebook page made the following announcement yesterday:
Over the past two years, ESPN has shown UFC main events & preliminary bouts for our viewers & fans of the sport. We have recently been informed that we are not able to continue to show some live UFC content on our channel. We & the UFC are working to find a solution to this as we understand your concerns. ESPN continues to televise UFC main events and provides coverage of UFC and mixed martial arts online at ESPN.co.uk & ESPN.com, & on TV via MMA Live.
Thanks for your patience.
Note they don't specifically say who they were informed by in being unable to show all live UFC content and so far UFC UK President and Managing Director of International Development Marshall Zelaznik has remained silent on the matter. In the last few months the prelims the American audience has been able to watch on Spike TV had been dropped from ESPN UK and fans have had to take to UFC.com to watch. Now it looks like entire events could be cut from the scheduling. It may be the UFC is wanting to spread their content and have a presence beyond the ESPN network in the UK which as sports networks go is still playing second fiddle to the much bigger and more established Sky Sports network. It may be the UFC is wanting more money for rights coverage and ESPN have said no, or it may be ESPN no longer sees the same value it once did in the dominant Mixed Martial Arts brand and have chosen to cut back coverage. Considering the statement goes on to say 'We & the UFC are working to find a solution' makes it sound like they're currently negotiating terms for coverage and that almost always comes down to the money involved - how much UFC want versus how much ESPN is willing pay.
Unfortunately for UFC this couldn't have come at a worse time as their presence in the UK has been waning in the last couple of years on the live front with events propped up with local and some European talent with middle of the rung marquee names at the top of the bill and yet ticket prices have been on par with championship fights stateside. Along with Michael Bisping, is the most visible and marketable fighter from the UK and is in a do or die fight that his UK fanbase have a great interest in. Being unable to watch possibly his last fight in the promotion on television as well as knowing some future events will not be shown doesn't bode well for the health of the promotion in this market.
The UFC's official Facebook presence has been just as vague on the situation doing little more than promise that UK fans will be able to watch it somehow, someway and that more information is coming soon. What this will likely mean is the ability to watch the event live and on replay during a small window of time via the UFC.TV website for free in a similar way the German audience does due UFC having no TV presence there as well. This isn't the most ideal situation and certainly not one UFC want long term as they'll lose money from missed advertising revenue and licensing fees. Not only that but a large section of fans may still be unable to watch due to the general quality and speed of TV on demand services and broadband Internet being far behind what's available in North America and other regions.
At the time of writing this, Gareth A Davies of The Telegraph has since confirmed that fans in the UK will be able to watch the event live and on replay via www.ufc.tv And also has some quotes from Marshall Zelaznik:
"Versus programming falls outside of our current deal with ESPN. While efforts were made to get ESPN the carry the Hardy fight, we could not come to terms. We understand UFC fans and ESPN customers will be disappointed, so the UFC has made the entire main card available - for free - live and on-demand all next week to ensure everyone can see this fights."
"The Versus shows only came into being in early 2010, after our agreement with ESPN had already been signed. Nevertheless we have worked with ESPN to bring these cards to ESPN subscribers; but on this occasion with Sunday's fight ESPN decided not to license the event.
"Ultimately, we did all we could to try and get this programming out. There's a some of talk online that this is a step towards all UFC events going on Pay-Per-View in the UK - truth is this has not been a factor in this situation. ESPN continues to show the vast majority of major UFC action and with our relationship with Five there is plenty of content available to our fans. We feel confident that our hard core fan base will understand and find a way to see the fights through UFC.tv."