As sports organizations suspend their agreements with Russian broadcasters due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Ultimate Fighting Championship continues to maintain a lucrative broadcast relationship with controversial, state-owned Russian sources.
The UFC is partnered with Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of the Russian oil and gas giant and Russia’s largest media holding. The long-term deal, which was agreed upon in December 2021, made Gazprom the exclusive broadcast partner for the UFC in Russia through its popular sports network, Match TV.
“For the UFC in Russia, the deal with Gazprom-Media and Match TV is a historic step forward,” UFC Russia vice president Andrei Gromkovsky said at the time. “Our cooperation will create the largest community of sports fans on the Russian internet, expand the boundaries of sports, allow a large number of viewers to see UFC content and root for our champions.
UFC content currently broadcasts on traditional Match TV channels and across its digital platforms, most recently airing events such as UFC 272 and UFC Fight Night: Santos vs. Ankalaev. This is in stark contrast to the numerous sports leagues and organizations that have ended their broadcast deals in Russia.
In protest against Russia’s military action, the Premier League suspended its relationship with Russian broadcaster Okko Sport; the National Hockey League (NHL) put an end to its business relationships in the country, including its media rights deal with Yandex; Discovery’s Eurosport suspended all operations in Russia; Formula 1 terminated its relationship with Match TV following the suspension of the Russian Grand Prix; the Scottish Football Association (SFA) confirmed a “media blackout” for its events in Russia, while even the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) terminated its partnership with Gazprom-Media and shut down the WWE Network in Russia.
The sports effects on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine extend beyond terminated broadcast deals. Russia’s national and club soccer teams have been banned from international competition, including the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. UEFA also canceled its $45 million a year sponsorship deal with Gazprom, and moved the Champions League Final, which was due to play in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, to Paris. The International Paralympic Committee also moved to bar athletes from Russia and Belarus on the eve of the Paralympic Games in Beijing.
On the other hand, the UFC has made no attempts to distance itself from Russia or some of its more controversial athletes. These include Magomed Ankalaev, a representative of Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov’s sanctioned Akhmat MMA fight club, who headlined a UFC event last week in Las Vegas, Nevada, and which also aired on Match TV in Russia.
The UFC’s upcoming events are still listed on Match TV’s official broadcast schedule. Others, such as Formula 1 and the WWE have been removed.
The organization’s continued relationship with Gazprom Media is also concerning, as the media holding is owned by Gazprom, a Russian company—in which the state has a controlling stake—that is one of the largest natural gas exporters in the world. It has numerous ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has been embroiled in money-laundering allegations in Europe.
Gazprom-Media, which owns at least 32 media holdings, is also state-controlled and has a history of buying out media outlets and channels and converting them into propaganda mouthpieces for the Kremlin. It also purchased several of the most influential newspapers and radio stations and brought them under government control.
Gazprom-Media also appears to be at the forefront of bringing the internet in Russia under government control. The media holding obtained a controlling stake in VKontakte, Russia’s largest social media network, which raises concerns about increased censorship and monitoring of dissent. Gazprom-Media even created its own YouTube, RuTube, and a TikTok counterpart, Yappy, meaning it is in control of Russia’s social networks.
Given that Gazprom-Media has hollowed out independent media in Russia, dominated social media networks, and is responsible for a wide range of propaganda at the behest of the Kremlin, there are plenty of reasons for sports organizations to distance themselves from the entity.
However, when asked whether the organization intended to cut ties with the state-controlled Gazprom-Media, the UFC did not respond to BloodyElbow’s request for comment.