When the UFC and Bellator go head-to-head on a Saturday night on dueling streaming services, as they will this weekend, it tells you how quickly the industry is changing.
Sports television rights fees have skyrocketed in recent years due to entertainment executives feeling that because of changes in lifestyles and technology, the value of live sports has never been higher. Unlike scripted entertainment programming, the idea is that live sports are destination programming that people watch live and are considered DVR-proof.
When WME-IMG (now Endeavor) purchased the UFC for nearly $4 billion, a deal that was considered crazy by many at the time, the key to the price was the idea that the UFC’s value to television would increase, and in the next television rights negotiations, they’d get a huge increase over a long period of time. And that happened, but perhaps not in the way envisioned even three years ago when people were lining up to buy the UFC.
Bellator, on the flip side, was owned by Viacom, meaning that they didn’t have to deal with the inflation of rights fees going forward. Spike (now Paramount) had its own regular prime time sports franchise for life, but one surprise is that Bellator often did about 15 percent of its viewership via DVR.
But this week, there are two major events. There will be television programming for UFC Fort Lauderdale — the early prelims at 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2, and ESPN broadcasting two hours from 7-9 p.m. But the top six matches on the main card are an ESPN+ exclusive.
What’s notable is that this wasn’t always the plan. Saturday’s show was scheduled to be all television, with ESPN airing the top 10 bouts. Instead, just recently, the decision was made for ESPN, rather than push for ratings with a live event, to use the television platform to drive viewers to ESPN+ and attempt to use the UFC to increase the streaming subscription count.
What it means is that less viewers will be watching the fights, and it cuts back three more hours of actual UFC main card bouts on television. That number was already cut back when the UFC went from being a property that boosted ratings on FS1 and got network viewership a few times a year on FOX, to a property that ESPN seems to view as most valuable in building its streaming service. Ultimately, and Saturday is the prime example, it means less casual sports fans watching this week, and this year.
Still, the ESPN deal has been a huge financial success for the UFC, to the point that the deal was extended from 2023 to 2025. And the move from television pay-per-view to only streaming pay-per-view has been similar. Numbers aren’t available regarding how UFC 236, the UFC’s first pure streaming pay-per-view, did. But it’s difficult to believe the viewership was close to what the show could have done on television. There are still many areas where Internet speed isn’t good enough to view the content, and many viewers, likely older, who are used to pushing a button to get pay-per-view, are likely to not be as apt in going through the process of ordering the show through ESPN+.
But what the UFC is losing in terms of number of fans is more than offset financially. ESPN guaranteeing strong pay-per-view revenue each month is the new and more stable revenue deal. If a show like UFC 236 isn’t one that is going to do a big pay-per-view number for the UFC, it’s no longer the feast vs. famine dilemma of what had been the monthly pay-per-view business. Essentially, every pay-per-view is now a success for the UFC. And for ESPN, there will be the wide variety in orders and revenue, but they clearly have found that the UFC has been a key to growth of ESPN+.
For Bellator, its deal with DAZN has meant that a number of its biggest events per year are no longer on television. The motto of a few years ago, that you could see all of Bellator’s biggest fights “free on Spike,” has changed significantly.
Saturday’s event from San Jose’s SAP Center features two title fights: Rory MacDonald vs. Jon Fitch for the welterweight title in what doubles as a quartefinal match in the welterweight tournament, and Ilima-Lei Macfarlane vs. Veta Arteaga for the flyweight title. The name Macfarlane almost signifies how this has changed the game in a negative way.
Back in December, when Macfarlane was defending her title against Valerie Letourneau in her home of Honolulu, the hometown sellout crowd and her unique entrance and video package led to one of the most impressive atmospheres at a fight show in 2018. But the number of people who actually saw it, because it was on DAZN rather than television, was far less than usual. It’s far harder to build stars, the lifeblood of the sport, with this model. But the revenue the streaming platforms offer to promotions is too much to pass up on.
The idea is although that may be the case now, in time, the streaming platforms will grow. ESPN+ and DAZN are a must for hardcore fans already if they want to see the biggest fights from both companies, as well as other companies like Combate Americas (DAZN) and PFL (ESPN+). They are a financial boon for the companies, giving them lucrative new revenue streams as the new streaming companies are in a land grab for sports. But they will also result in fewer casual fans watching the products most weeks. Another issue is that DAZN is now selling for $19.99 per month, which is a significant difference from the $4.99 of ESPN+.
And as far as the value of the UFC and Bellator in providing DVR-proof regular programming for television, that’s to a large extent gone by the wayside.
This past Saturday was the UFC’s latest foray into Russia, with a show in St. Petersburg. Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Stars of the show.
ALISTAIR OVEREEM — “The Reem” (45-17, 1 NC), one of the most enduring stars in the sport, survived some rough waters against former training partner Aleksei Oleinik in the main event, to score a first-round finish.
Overeem was originally scheduled to face Alexander Volkov (30-7), who pulled out late. After winning on Saturday, he once again challenged Volkov, and that fight makes sense as the next destination for both.
ALEKSEI OLEINIK — At 41, Oleinik (57-12-1) and his 45 career submission wins had come off a career highlight, a first-round submission win over Mark Hunt. A good next opponent for him would be Shamil Abdurakhimov (20-5), who defeated Marcin Tybura on Saturday night.
ISLAM MAKHACHEV — In one of the best wrestling-oriented grappling battles in the UFC in some time, Makhachev (17-1) took the decision over Arman Tsuarukyan (13-2). It’s highly unusual, but in this case fully deserved, for a fight mostly on the ground to earn fight of the night honors.
Paul Felder, on commentary, spoke of Makhachev as a guy who it’s hard to get opponents for, because his grappling is so good he can shut people down. But his name isn’t big enough to where if a top guy faces him, it’s considered a big win. The best next opponent for him would be someone from the same style, Gregor Gillespie (13-0). Felder (16-4) may have given the reasons on why people avoid Makhachev, but he’d also be a very viable next opponent for him.
SERGEI PAVLOVICH — In an aging heavyweight division, the 26-year-old Pavlovich came into the UFC with a lot of promise for the future. Pavlovich had a 12-0 record, with nine first-round finishes, all from punches. But debuting on Nov. 24 against Overeem proved too much. Pavlovich (13-1) got back on the winning track on Saturday, showing his explosive punching power in finishing Marcelo Golm in 66 seconds. A good next opponent would be the winner of this coming Saturday’s fight between Augusto Sakai (12-1-1) and Andrei Arlovski (27-17).
ROXANNE MODAFERRI — At 36, with 16 years in the sport, Modaferri (23-16) continues to show improvement in all aspects of her game. As a strong underdog, she used her wrestling game to take a decision over Antonina Shevchenko, who came into the fight undefeated. Maryna Moroz (9-3) or Alexis Davis (19-9) would make a good next opponent.