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Exclusive: Problems arise as UFC seeks new TV deal in Russia

Karim Zidan looks at the ongoing stalemate between the UFC and Russia’s main sports broadcaster MatchTV.

UFC 205: Nurmagomedov v Johnson Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

On Thursday, Russian public sports channel MatchTV announced that they may no longer broadcast UFC events due to an ongoing stalemate in the negotiation process for a contract renewal.

According to the press release, Match TV claims the UFC handed over the programme licensing to a “local Russian mediator,” who raised the asking price by “multiples.” The release also apologized to fight fans and suggested they may not be able to view their preferred programming on their network.

"UFC, the primary owner of media rights, decided to transfer the license to broadcast in the Russian Federation in 2017 to the local agent of the Russian intermediary. Unfortunately, the value of these rights for those who would like to show the full scale data broadcast by Russian television viewers, increased by multiples in comparison with the same period last year.

"Match TV understands the interest of the audience to watch UFC event and is doing everything possible within the framework of the negotiation process. In the case of an agreement that suits all parties in terms of the financial and commercial conditions, "Match TV" will immediately inform the fans and viewers to the updated schedule of broadcasts."

Due the ongoing changes with seemingly no resolution in sight, MMA fans within the Russian Federation will not be able to watch UFC broadcasts in the near future. This could potentially include the UFC 209 PPV event (broadcasts on free TV in Russia due to time difference) in March. That event will feature Dagestani star Khabib Nurmagomedov in a much-anticipated interim title fight against Tony Ferguson. And while this may inconvenience MMA fans anxious to see whether Khabib can become Russia’s first UFC champion, it was likely a strategic move on the promotion’s part to leverage a more lucrative TV deal.

In January 2015, the UFC announced a new partnership with Russian broadcasters VGTRK, (The All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company), where UFC events would be made available across a combination of Russia 2, Sport 1, Fight Club and That deal lasted until November, when MatchTV was created on order from Russian president Vladimir Putin, and eventually broadcast using the Russia-2 frequency.

According to sources close to the Russian broadcasting company, the UFC’s 2016 deal with MatchTV was worth approximately $500,000 annually. However, once UFC ownership transferred over to WME-IMG, the Hollywood powerbrokers targeted dramatically increased profits, which included new TV deals internationally. However, given that MatchTV is the largest public broadcasting channel in Russia dedicated to sports, the UFC is unlikely to find many suitable replacements.

While this does not necessarily impact a potential UFC show in Russia, it does highlight the limitations of the Russian market and what the UFC could possibly achieve there. They are unlikely to do a PPV show because of the time difference, which limits their inaugural Russia event to a Fight Night or Fight Pass show. Couple that with a weak economy and terrible currency exchange rate that will impact ticket sales/revenue and it becomes evidently clear that the UFC’s future in Russia looks bleak.

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