Disney, ESPN Strike UFC TV and Streaming Deal

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Exclusive live UFC content will appear on ESPN+ and ESPN's TV, social and digital platforms.

The Walt Disney Company and UFC have reached their first-ever multiyear deal to offer exclusive live UFC Fight Night events to ESPN+. The five-year, $750 million deal (worth $150 million annually), begins in January 2019

The companies on Tuesday unveiled their exclusive distribution pact that will see live UFC content also appear on ESPN’s TV, social and digital platforms, in English and Spanish. In all, 15 live UFC events will stream only on ESPN+, with the Disney-owned sports giant's redesigned app. The offering, one of two planned over-the-top products currently being developed within Disney, is ESPN's answer to the growing audience for streaming content and a declining base of subscribers to its linear television networks.

Each ESPN+ event will be branded as UFC on ESPN+ Fight Night, and include 12 bouts. "I couldn’t be more excited to partner with The Walt Disney Company and ESPN on an agreement that will continue to grow our sport," UFC president Dana White said in a statement.

Endeavor purchased UFC in 2016 for $4 billion as part of an aggressive push into content ownership. Fox Sports currently airs UFC content on its cable networks FS1 and FS2. ESPN and Fox have been in negotiations with Endeavor-owned UFC for several months about splitting the package. Fox Sports' current deal began in 2011; UFC content has taken a ratings hit of late on FS1, down double digits in 2017. But the promotion's audience is nevertheless among the youngest in sports, with a median age of 40. And advertisers are willing to pay a premium for young, male viewers. 

"It was important for us to be compensated in the upper echelon of sports properties," says Mark Shapiro, co-president of IMG. 

The deal with ESPN is a significant step in that direction. Disney and ESPN will be hoping the UFC'S young fan base will embrace ESPN+, which costs $4.99 per month, or $49.99 for the year. Shapiro characterized UFC as the new "anchor tenant" at ESPN+, which is a significant priority at Disney. It is also the first major deal to be consummated under new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro's watch as ESPN attempts to build a robust digital footprint to complement — and compensate for — a linear business marked by losses due to cord-cutting and evolving consumer behavior toward OTT services. 

"We're placing our chips on what we think is currently the best sports streaming platform," adds Shapiro. "When they debuted the new app in early April, it made it abundantly clear the focus they were putting on quality.That’s something we really looked at; Facebook is carrying baseball; Amazon is carrying tennis. ESPN+ is a standout for us for several reasons; the retail price tag, they have a very limited number of ads, but most importantly was the quality and the priority at the company."

Besides live events, UFC content on ESPN+ will include new seasons of Dana White's Contender Series, original content from IMG, exclusive pre-bout and post-event shows around the live events and UFC Countdown shows.

UFC's pay-per-view business also figures in the Disney deal as fight fans can purchase and watch Fight Pass and other PPV offerings for a separate cost via the ESPN+ app.