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ESPN must carry the burden of highlighting UFC talent during packed 2019 schedule

The longtime sports network appears to have started their run with the UFC on the right foot, but more work may be required if they want to keep it that way.

13th Annual ESPN The Party - Inside Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for ESPN

The UFC is now full into the swing of what looks to be one of the busiest years in the promotion’s long history. With 21 events already scheduled into early July, only 2014 had more. It’s the kind of pace the promotion has to keep if they want to satisfy the contractual needs of its near-600 fighter roster and provide the depth and regularity of content that ESPN was looking for when they brought the MMA promotion on to help get their new streaming platform off the ground.

Although it’s way too early to know for sure, to date that relationship seems like a surprising success. ESPN+ has reportedly passed over two million subscribers in its first year of service. Of which, more than half a million apparently came on board for the UFC’s debut Brooklyn event on the platform.

The prelims for the fight card headlined by Henry Cejudo vs. TJ Dillashaw scored a 1.2 rating (1.96 million viewers), more than double a those of last year’s similarly scheduled UFC on FS1 event numbers, and right in line with the UFC on FOX: Emmett vs. Stephens numbers from last February. Similarly, the UFC 234 & UFC 235 prelim ratings have been in line with some of the UFC’s best watched cards — more suited to events featuring Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. For an event like Adesanya vs. Silva – which delivered PPV buys closer to a Demetrious Johnson card – to score like a Rousey fight on the televised undercard is a spectacular win.

But, it’s not like the UFC didn’t have a spectacular early run on FOX as well. Six of the top rated cards to ever air on ‘BIG FOX’ did so in the first ten events on the platform. The promotion broke four million viewers four times in those first ten events, but would only break three million four more times before sliding down into the twos and ones. The story of the UFC on FOX was a story of diminishing returns.

As the UFC breaks into what will likely be one of several event churns for a very busy year – nine straight weeks of fight cards, and four straight without a PPV – ESPN’s ability to keep the UFC interesting will be put to the test.

To that end, it feels in part like the promotion is already a surprisingly better fit for MMA than FOX ever was. And it may be that’s because the core of the brand is so much better tuned to (even mildly) in-depth sports coverage than FOX ever could be.

FOX is, at its heart, a news and entertainment brand. They deliver 24-hour-news cycle coverage & classic sitcom/pop-culture TV. They just also happen to host some sports as well. FS1 & 2, their sports focused arms, were always running low on the totem pole in terms of muscle in the marketplace. FS2 can show UFC reruns all day — but if nobody sees them, does it matter? On the flip side, ESPN has already started inserting KOs from the UFC’s 2019 fight cards into their SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day rotation. Fighters like Dwight Grant & Niko Price are already benefiting from a network ready to deliver better exposure.

But, will that kind of general inclusion be enough?

It’s notable that, as FS1 and NBCSN improved viewership into 2018, the UFC returns steadily declined. The Gaethje vs. Vick Fight Night ended up the lowest rated Saturday night FS1 UFC broadcast in the promotion’s history with the network — just as the deal came to a close. It could be that MMA needs a bit of extra help to catch with viewers long term. And, unfortunately for ESPN and for the fighters, it doesn’t seem like a lot of that help will come from the UFC.

The promotion has built itself a brand based largely around content volume and consistency, more than an interest in highlighting athletes or individual events. They’ve flooded their own market; with uniformed fighters, dubstep remixes, and the kind of lighting that ensures every venue looks more or less the same — 40+ times a year. If fans are going to feel like each event is worth showing up to – or just leaving on after the basketball/baseball/football game they were watching is over – it’s going to fall to ESPN to give those fans a reason.

Between Get Up!, First Take, E:60, Outside the Lines, High Noon, Highly Questionable, Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption, Golic and Wingo, Jalen & Jacoby, and hours upon hours upon hours of SportsCenter, ESPN has a wealth of day-to-day platforms they can find to shoehorn in content focusing on individual athletes, fights, and events. For a property like the UFC – which will put a serious amount of product into the ESPN live sports rotation, but with only minimal athlete name recognition or event-to-event differentiation – if the network really is set on getting something other than slowly diminishing returns, they may have to give promoting it a lot more muscle than they expected.

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