As of 1 August, the UFC will no longer be available on the largest cable provider (and second largest pay TV provider after Sky), Virgin Media - leaving many fans stuck in Virgin contracts extremely annoyed with the UFC's decision to make a deal with BT to have its content shown on their new BT Sports channels. The UFC did not seem to understand that BT would not necessarily provide their channels to other carriers, because it wants to use exclusive sports content (most notably Premier League football) to encourage their customers to switch to BT's internet service - where BT Sport is free, but where the service is lousy.
Let me start of this post with a strong caveat. It may be that a deal is done in the next few days to remedy what seems like a rather glaring error on the UFC's part in choosing its new broadcaster in the UK. If so, this post is rendered moot (in the US sense of the word). With that out of the way, rant on:
For the last few years UFC has been broadcast on ESPN in the UK. ESPN can be accessed through a number of different suppliers, the most popular being Sky (the huge digital satellite provider that is part of News International and a cousin of Fox in the US) and Virgin Media (the main cable company). The cost varies depending on the package taken, but in general probably adds about £10 or £12. So it's a good deal for facepunching fans. I have ESPN in HD through Virgin Media, having switched over from Sky when I moved house. I am in the middle of an eighteen-month contract.
In February BT (formerly British Telecom - now the largest supplier of landline and ISP services in the UK and a small player in the pay TV market) bought ESPN UK from Disney, to add content to its new line up of sports on two channels (BT Sport 1 and BT Sport 2). These new channels have been created as a result of BT securing last year the broadcast rights to the English Premier League from August 2013 - the rights previously owned by ESPN, but extended to include more games. ESPN will remain as the ugly third duckling of BT's line up, shorn of most of it's decent content though with US college sports and the like broadcasting in the middle of the night. The UFC is moving to one of the BT Sport channels. KJ Gould did an article on this back in April: KJ's article.
So far, so what?
On the plus side, BT is actually going to do some programming around the UFC, which ESPN never did. And hopefully they won't mess around with the live coverage as ESPN has been guilty of doing (such as somehow cutting the Brad Pickett - Damacio Page barnburner from UFC on Fuel TV 2 : Gustafsson vs Silva in 2012).
But here comes the Boom: BT do not want to wholesale their content to other providers. A deal has been done with Sky which allows them to order the channels through BT and then view them via satellite. And those who already BT broadband or TV customers get the channels free. But no deal has been done with Virgin as of yet. So from tomorrow I lose ESPN and have no way of getting BT Sport, stuck as I am in a contract with Virgin. There are a LOT of UK MMA fans like me in the same position, because Virgin used ESPN to get people onto more expensive packages. One only has to look at the UFC UK facebook page to see that suddenly losing the ability to watch their favourite sport, and with no chance of switching because of 18-month Virgin contracts, has left a lot of fans very pissed off. Including me! (And it's not just UFC fans in this boat - motoGP and rugby fans are also in uproar.)
Why would BT do this? Because in the UK its all about the triple play: phone, broadband and TV. Sky, Virgin, BT and the other supplier TalkTalk all want consumers to use them for all three. The big money is in landlines and broadband and so BT are using exclusive sports content to try to drive people like me from existing suppliers over to them. BT customer service is notoriously suspect, as numerous forums and my own personal experience ( I have a phone line with them) can attest.
To put this into context for my North American pals, it is in some ways analogous to the battle between Comcast and DirectTV over Versus, when some fans were suddenly denied acces to the UFC on Versus cards. Except here, its all UFC content that is at stake.
Not only are fans losing out, but I cannot see that is is in the long-term interest of the UFC to be denied to so many homes in the UK. Virgin Media is the second largest provider of pay TV in the UK with around 5 million customers, behind Sky's 10.7 million. BT has only around 800,000. I am not sure the UFC ever appreciated that they were entering into a deal with a channel that would not be available to so many UK fans.
There is one other option for people like me- paying for UFC cards via UFC.tv. But most cards are on in the small hours in the UK and I for one always record them and watch them on Sundays. Plus, PPVs are priced at £15, which is cheap by US standards but not something I am willing to pay except for the best of cards. So, ultimately, I will probably switch back to Sky for my UFC fix - but I can't do that until next spring. And Uncle Dana probably won't be pleased with my solution until then...
Sorry for the long post, guys. But it's good to get if off my chest!