Gary Cook was a bit coy when it came to questions about the UFC's UK television deal asked of him during the various press conferences held the week of UFC on Fuel 9 in Sweden. Appointed as the new Executive Vice President and Managing Director of the UFC in Europe, the Middle East and Africa in September 2012, one of the main tasks most expected of him was to find a better deal for the UFC than ESPN were currently offering for the UK and Northern Ireland market.
With ESPN losing out on the rights to Premier League Football (soccer) games to Sky and BT Vision last June, and with BT announcing back in February they had bought many of the sports broadcast rights ESPN UK had left after losing such a crucial, commercial spectator sport -- think NFL rights for American networks -- those following this television turmoil were left wondering what the future held for the world's premier MMA promotion.
BT's name was dropped several times in Sweden by reporters, with Cook neither confirming or denying a deal with them had been struck, but that they were in talks with BT among other service providers (namely bSKYb aka Sky Television).
Now Dave Meltzer is reporting the deal is done and we can expect to see UFC in its new home this summer, via his Wrestling Observer Newsletter (subscription required):
UFC has agreed to a new three-year television deal with British Telecon (sic) Sports in the U.K., effective in August, and lasting until 2016. BT Sports will replace ESPN U.K. as the home of UFC. ESPN U.K. doesn't have a lot of penetration, being a pay channel, and aired almost all UFC programming live, which meant it started 2-4 a.m. That's great for servicing the super hardcore fans, who were able to get all the PPVs free with a subscription to the channel, and hardcore U.K. sports fans are used to staying up all night to see major events from other parts of the world. But you aren't going to get casual fans to do so. UFC was looking for a deal that would include airing programming in prime time, both taped matches and magazine shows. UFC officials were not talking about this deal, which at press time was not officially announced. Over the weekend, when Garry Cook, who handled a lot of the media in Sweden, was asked about the subject, he said he had nothing to say, just saying the deal hasn't been announced but a deal was on the verge of being announced. British Telecon Sports is a new channel being built on the back of a three-year contract with the English Premier League, the top soccer league in the country, which is the closest thing to their NFL. BT is getting 38 games per season, a lot of them high profile. Sky is still the place to be for sports and for whatever reason, they haven't made a deal with UFC. ESPN U.K. is about to become non-existent, selling their assets to BT.
UFC are currently on a 1 year extension with ESPN in the UK, which has probably allowed them to negotiate with BT for a new deal rather than have their rights swept up in the assets ESPN has been selling off, showing great foresight on the UFC's part with the writing seemingly on the wall when ESPN failed to get any Premier League games for the new 2013 / 2014 season.
ESPN is expected to have at least one branded channel remain as part of the BT Sport package, most likely the one that focuses on American sports as its niche, and fans of Scottish Premier League, Europa League and the German Bundesliga will be able to watch on a BT Sport specific channel.
Through a little bit of digging I've found out current ESPN subscribers on Sky should be able to get BT Sport when it launches in the summer, and the expected EPG channel is 435 and 436 which is currently 'Sailing 1' and 'Sailing 2', but little more than place holders in reality. Price plans are unknown for a BT Sport package, and presumably ESPN America stays as it is.
ESPN was part of the Virgin XL package as standard, and it's unknown if BT Sport will simply replace ESPN for Virgin Media Customers, or if it ends up being a little more complicated.
BT Vision isn't without controversy though, topping the premium subscription TV service providers in customer service complaints last year according to OfCom, the UK's communications regulator, which claims it received almost 4 times as many complaints as its nearest rival (Virgin Media). It will be interesting to see if any BT Vision customers, or even Sky and Virgin Media customers will have any issues subscribing in a few months time.
While it's not the Sky Sports deal many were hoping for, it's hard to know if this will be an improvement over ESPN outside of the better brand recognition BT has, being a familiar mainstay for the UK public for the better part of a century. The cynic in me could easily dismiss the new deal as 'ESPN with a UK name', but the optimist in me could see a better showcase of pre-recorded UFC content like The Ultimate Fighter or magazine style shows if that was part of the BT Sport deal, and UFC would absolutely benefit from Premier League Football games as a lead in.
Live programming is more often than not going to be post 2 a.m. local time due to the difference between British Standard Time and the Eastern and Pacific time zones UFC operates their PPVs under, but when ESPN wouldn't even show the Sweden event live (and yet Fuel TV in the USA did), I would hope the new deal with BT Sport wouldn't have similar pre-empting in favour of something like live German Bundesliga.
The main issue I have with this deal though -- and it was the same issue with the ESPN deal -- is by limiting all UFC content to a small selection of premium subscription channels you're likely only preaching to the converted, where a network or digital freeview presence is still their best bet at reaching as many people as they can in order to convert a larger number of them to invest in their live content. UFC briefly had an arrangement with FIVE to show fights from previous events on their network, but rarely before 11 p.m. and often post-midnight. A SKY deal could have meant a broader audience with their Sky 1 and Sky 2 entertainment channels, or even a deal with FOX UK (formerly FX UK) to show extra content. Why a SKY deal continues to elude the UFC is a mystery, though likely one that's financially driven.