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What we know about the UFC’s $1.5 billion broadcast deal with ESPN

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The key details on the UFC’s new partnership with ESPN.

Beyond Innovation Summit - ESPN Leadership Dinner Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Starting in 2019, UFC programming in the United States will leave FOX and head to ESPN, aka the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” You might be wondering what this means for the number of cards, the future of UFC Fight Pass, what the ESPN/ESPN+ split will be like, and much more.

It is merely one day since the news broke, and today (Wednesday, May 23rd) marked the official announcement, so we’ll see some details revealed in the months ahead, but for now, here’s what we know.

  • The overall package is five years, $1.5 billion. This $300 million/year deal is actually $150 million/year for TV rights, and another $150 million for the cards streamed on ESPN+. It’s more than double what FOX is currently paying for the final year of its broadcast rights.
  • The UFC still controls the production. Different network partnership, same production. Dana White confirmed this with Brett Okamoto.
  • Total number of annual UFC events: 42 (with 32 of 42 main cards behind either the ESPN+ or PPV paywall). That’s more than the 39 they ran in 2017, and one more than the 41 they staged in 2015 and 2016. If you are one to believe the UFC is running too many shows, they’re actually going to be slightly increasing their total events moving forward.
  • 20 Fight Night cards will air on ESPN+, while 10 will be on ESPN linear networks. Yes, the majority of the non-PPV events are going to be streamed behind a paywall and not televised (for US viewers, at least). The official branding shall be known as “UFC on ESPN Fight Night” and “UFC on ESPN+ Fight Night.” To inject my own take on this briefly, ESPN and ESPN2 are going to be locked up with primetime college basketball and college football for several months of the year, and those games will take priority over the UFC, so I imagine April-August is going to be the sweet spot for Fight Nights on ESPN.
  • PPVs won’t be reduced, and ESPN networks will televise the PPV prelims. The official press release announced that there will be 12 pay-per-view preliminary card specials on ESPN and its family of networks.
  • All ESPN Fight Night preliminary cards will be streamed on ESPN+. Instead of prelims and main card on the same network, events on ESPN television will have prelims on the streaming service.
  • Dana White’s Contender Series will be on ESPN+ starting June 2019. There was no mention of The Ultimate Fighter, so we can only speculate as to what that means for that show.
  • Ariel Helwani and Chael Sonnen will be part of ESPN’s MMA coverage. As was announced last week, Ariel Helwani will be leaving MMAFighting.com to be part of ESPN’s MMA team, which includes “co-host of ‘Ariel & The Bad Guy,’ a new weekly MMA program on ESPN+; host of ongoing podcast ‘Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show’ and reporter for MMA across ESPN digital media and television platforms.”
  • UFC Fight Pass isn’t going away. While nothing was said about live UFC bouts on Fight Pass, the official press release did state “In addition to the live events and content included in the ESPN+ subscription, fight fans will be able to purchase and watch UFC FIGHT PASS® (UFC’s DTC streaming offering) and UFC PPV events via ESPN+ and within the ESPN app, for a separate cost.” ESPN+ subscribers will also have “non-exclusive access to UFC’s full archive of programming, including historic events, classic bouts, and original programming.”

If you’re based in the United States and are interested in signing up for ESPN+, the subscription is a no-contract $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year.

In due time, we’ll know how long these cards will last — they will be 12-fight shows — the dates, the start times, and plenty more as we embark in a new era of UFC broadcast content.