ESPN didn’t waste time falling in line with the UFC.
The UFC signed a five-year deal with ESPN in May 2018. A few months after agreement, which was extended to seven years, ESPN’s coverage of the UFC softened.
When Abdul Razak Alhassan indicted in Texas on two charges, including a count of sexual assault. ESPN failed to report the story. However, when a jury found Alhassan not guilty in 2020, that story made it onto ESPN’s website.
Perhaps the most egregious example of ESPN’s soft touch approach to the UFC came in August 2019 when Conor McGregor appeared on the network to do an interview that could only be described as an attempt at a public relations rehabilitation. The interview, conducted by Ariel Helwani, was almost apologetic when he asked McGregor about hitting an older man in the head in a Dublin bar. Even worse, Helwani never broached the subject of McGregor being accused of sexual assault.
That interview was the point when it became clear how ESPN would cover the UFC.
The MMA world got a few more glimpses of that light touch approach when White appeared on SportsCenter three times over the past two weeks and received zero pushback from the hosts when White insisted the UFC would push forward with its events even when every other major sport in America had postponed their schedules.
ESPN might not be FOX Sports with its coverage of the UFC — it might be worse. At least with FOX, fans knew the coverage was pro-UFC because it usually came from active and former UFC fighters. The average sports fan, with little knowledge of the UFC’s past, might think ESPN is covering the promotion in an in-depth manner.
ESPN’s recent coverage of the UFC is far from what it was in 2012 when “Outside the Lines” looked at fighter pay. That’s unfortunate because it’s been eight years since that story ran and UFC pay still needs to go under the microscope in a big way. The subject of fighter pay might even be more important in 2020 than it was eight years ago, since the Fertitta brothers sold the UFC to Endeavor in 2016. Today, UFC fighters receive less than 16% of UFC revenue.
With no live sports taking place because of the coronavirus pandemic, now would be a perfect time for ESPN and “Outside the Lines” to revisit the UFC’s finances and fighter pay. However, it doesn’t look like that will happen. Not only does ESPN seem to be nothing but FOX Sports 2.0 when it comes to its coverage of the promotion, the network has also cut back on “Outside the Lines” programming. What was a daily show from 2003 to late 2019, “Outside the Lines” now airs once a week.
That change was on brand for the network since Disney executive Jimmy Pitaro took over as ESPN president following the resignation of John Skipper in late 2017. Skipper, who was with ESPN since 1997, was named ESPN president in 2012. Skipper said his resignation was substance abuse related.
Pitaro has been more friendly to the leagues ESPN covers than Skipper was. In 2018, Deadspin’s Laura Wagner wrote of ESPN’s approach to the NFL under Pitaro’s lead:
“Pitaro all but pledged he wouldn’t do anything to make the NFL mad, so the league will keep selling the broadcast rights to its increasingly shitty and confusing product to ESPN, allowing ESPN to continue to clinging desperately to dwindling cable subscribers. The partnership is likely doomed for a variety of reasons (chief among them is cord cutting), but no one told Pitaro that, and he has dutifully and enthusiastically heeled to his self-appointed master.”
It’s easy to see that Pitaro is taking the same approach to the UFC. The five-year deal the network signed with the UFC in 2018 cost ESPN $1.5 billion. The UFC has also been a big part of the growth of ESPN+. Pitaro does not want to damage that relationship. Because of that approach, fans won’t get a complete view of the UFC’s business. Worse than that, the fighters will continue to suffer because of the lack of investigative journalism.