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Opinion: UFC’s venture into the UK PPV game came far too soon

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Scott Lagdon assesses the UFC’s controversial decision to move certain events to PPV in the UK.

Jon Jones Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

Cutting through the large amounts of white noise that the UFC offers on a weekly basis, UFC 239 stands out as an event of real significance where high-stakes bouts can be seen up and down the card. Who isn’t excited to see one of the best martial artists of all time, Jon Jones, step back inside the cage? Who doesn’t want to see if Amanda Nunes can take out the only former women’s bantamweight champion she hasn’t defeated yet? Who wouldn’t want to see if Ben Askren can back up all of the trash talk and overcome another top welterweight on the roster?

Unfortunately, many people in the UK won’t witness these questions getting answered live due to a controversial decision made by BT Sport and the UFC.

The show, which is the culmination of International Fight Week, represents a landmark moment for MMA in the UK as it will be the first ever UFC event to be shown on PPV. Most numbered shows in the future will remain on the standard BT Sport channel but some of the higher quality events will move behind a paywall according to the current plan.

In the UK and Ireland, UFC events can be viewed on BT Sport, which is a subscription channel, and sets fans back around £30/$38 a month. Over a year, that means it costs UK and Irish viewers £360/$450 to watch the world’s number one MMA promotion. BT Sport have the rights to Premier League football games and is the exclusive home of the UEFA Champions League but some subscribers pay their monthly fee just to watch the UFC. They are now being asked to pay an extra £20 on top of their subscriptions to tune in on Saturday night, which has left many extremely frustrated.

For some reason, both the UFC and BT Sport believe that now is the time to adjust the business model this side of the Atlantic. Down the line, with further cultivation of the market, this could prove to be successful but the UK and Ireland aren’t ready for this approach currently.

PPV should mostly be used when there is a mainstream event that captures the audience outside of a sport’s regular fan base - not when the event is still niche in itself. MMA in the UK/Ireland is in a totally different place compared to where the sport is in the US currently, due mostly to the difference in broadcast deals. By being on ESPN in the US, the UFC and MMA become part of the daily sports cycle where it is regularly discussed on SportsCenter and featured on ESPN’s website alongside the other mainstream sports. If you are a general sports fan, it is easy to stumble upon upcoming cards being previewed and big news being analyzed.

This is nowhere near the case in the UK and Ireland. Sky Sports is the equivalent of ESPN over here and their main news channel very rarely mentions MMA so fans have to go specifically looking for MMA content, rather than just catching it while tuning in. The general sports fan still knows relatively little about MMA and the UFC.

There is one person currently on the UFC roster who absolutely justifies his place on PPV in the UK/Ireland and would pull an impressive buy rate: Conor McGregor. However, he is the only current fighter who is well-known outside of the MMA bubble and appeals to the wider sports fan to draw casual interest, which is what a PPV needs to be successful.

Although Jon Jones is one of the bigger MMA stars in the US, the truth is that he isn’t very well known in the UK/Ireland and certainly isn’t surrounded by enough intrigue to demand PPV buys. If a general sports fan was to be approached on the street, most would be unable to tell you who Jon Jones is, let alone be able to discuss significant moments in his career. Casual viewers absolutely won’t be willing to lay down £20 to watch him compete, especially considering the time of night they would have to watch.

If UFC 239 was shown during prime time in the UK/Ireland, a debate could be had about whether it was worthy of a PPV slot or not. However, when the main card begins at 3am and the main eventers will likely make their walk to the cage at around 5.15am, that conversation almost immediately gets shut down. Outside of the small, hardcore fan base in the UK/Ireland, it is hard to picture any other member of the public pressing the purchase button to tune in and watch the event. This simply isn’t a successful or sustainable approach to generate and build up interest in the sport that the audience still needs an education on.

With the UK/Irish market, the UFC and BT Sport should still be trying to draw as many new eyeballs to the sport as possible in the hope of bringing in and capturing the attention of new fans. A card like UFC 239 would be a great opportunity for BT Sport to put its marketing machine into overdrive so it could heavily promote the event with the hope of attracting curious fans to their TV screens this weekend. That way, more general sports fans could become invested in MMA, gravitate towards certain competitors, and then be willing to pay money to watch them compete in the future when the fan base has increased in number.

The UFC and BT Sport clearly value the small amount of profit they would get from PPV buys more than continuing the public’s exposure to the product while also risking upsetting a large number of loyal fans. They would be far better off continuing to invest in the long-term future of the sport in the UK/Ireland so they can get to the stage where a large number of fans will pay to watch their biggest stars. It is really hard to see how Saturday night will be a business success for both companies and when the buy rate comes in, hopefully it will make them realise that they jumped the gun far too quickly on this one.