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Report: ESPN, FOX bid to split UFC broadcasting rights

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It appears as if FOX is not only seeking to retain UFC broadcasting rights, but will put up a joint bid with ESPN.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Barboza vs Dariush Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

With the UFC’s television agreement with FOX in its final year, it has been reported by Variety that both FOX and ESPN are teaming up to bid for split broadcasting rights for several years.

Here are some of the major details reported, including the annual cost for both parties:

Variety has learned that the two companies have recently proposed to split the UFC TV package in a move that would bring as many as 15 fight events to new subscription streaming service ESPN+.

According to sources with knowledge of the proposal, ESPN has signaled that it would be willing to pay $120-180 million per year to add the Endeavor-owned mixed martial arts league to its collection of live-event rights.

Fox, which currently pays $120 million per year UFC rights, would be willing see that number increase to a little more than $200 million. Fox’s current package includes four Saturday-night fights per year on Fox Broadcasting and a number of fight events on cable Fox Sports 1 that has increased annually under its current agreement. A joint bid with ESPN would see Fox’s total number of events decline slightly.

Representative for ESPN, Fox Sports, and Endeavor declined to comment.

The UFC’s first full year under their groundbreaking seven-year FOX deal began in 2012. Events were initially broadcast on either FOX, FX, or FUEL TV. Just one year later, the majority of the promotion’s televised cards were shifted to the newly formed FOX Sports 1, with plenty of additional programming and occasional live content on FOX Sports 2. Considering that neither FS1 nor FS2 airs the NFL, NHL, or NBA, the UFC has unquestionably been one of the most important assets for both networks in terms of overall sports content.

FOX is reportedly paying $160 million for its final year on the current contract — having previously paid $120 million — and the UFC was looking for somewhere in the neighborhood of $450 million a year moving forward (although Variety said Endeavor wanted $300-$400 million). It was reported a few months back that FOX was only willing to go up to $200 million, so this Variety report suggests that FOX isn’t budging, but with the UFC finding another broadcast partner, they’ll be able to get between $320-$380 million from the two networks.

Despite a decline in cable subscribers, the Disney-owned ESPN remains the preeminent force in American sports television. Much like the FS1/FS2 structure, ESPN is in more homes than ESPN2, while other sub-networks include ESPN U (for college sports), ESPN Classic, ESPN News, and the SEC Network.

One key development for ESPN occurred late last week, with the launch of ESPN+, an over-the-top streaming service that airs hundreds of hours of both live sports and original programming. Included in the deal are access to Major League Soccer, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, college sports, international soccer, rugby, cricket, golf, tennis, and much more. The monthly cost is $4.99.

Bob Arum’s Top Rank Boxing recently reworked its content deal with ESPN, and several live fight cards, including Terence Crawford’s welterweight title fight vs. Jeff Horn on June 9th, will be shown exclusively on ESPN+. Somewhat similar to UFC Fight Pass in that regard, access to the Top Rank fight library is included in the deal. You may remember that Bob Arum claimed the UFC tried to buy the Top Rank library last year.

Between the long-term arrangement with Top Rank Boxing, along with smaller deals to show Golden Boy Boxing and Glory kickboxing, and now this reported UFC bidding, ESPN is clearly committed in the long term to airing combat sports across its many platforms.

If all of this is comes to fruition, then big changes are in store beginning in 2019, as the UFC moves onto its second major broadcasting deal since departing from Spike at the end of 2011. With a possible decrease in FOX cards combined with the potential for 15 shows to be streamed on ESPN+, it’s still unknown how this would affect the annual number of events the UFC runs, or what the future would hold for UFC Fight Pass.