ESPN, UFC Finalize TV Deal

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The pact makes ESPN the home of the popular MMA brand.

ESPN has finalized a deal to carry the UFC on its linear networks, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. The pact follows a five-year $750 million digital deal to put UFC fights on ESPN+, the company’s recently launched OTT service. Like that deal, the linear pact also is valued at $150 million annually, bringing the total value of the deal to $1.5 billion over five years. 

The deal makes ESPN the home of the popular MMA brand, although the top UFC fights remain on pay-per-view and UFC’s own OTT service Fight Pass. 

The streaming deal, which was announced May 8, encompasses 15 live UFC events annually; the TV deal will give ESPN 30 additional fights. Together, the deals come to $300 million a year. Endeavor — which also owns WME-IMG — purchased the UFC in 2016 for $4 billion as part of an aggressive push into content ownership.

Fox Sports, which is been paying between $116-$130 million annually in a deal that ends in December, balked at a hefty increase, allowing its exclusive negotiating window to expire last fall. There was some interest from Turner and NBC, but neither network was as serious as ESPN.

Fox Sports' current deal began in 2011, but UFC content has taken a ratings hit of late on FS1, down double digits in 2017 as ranks of household name fighters have thinned. Having flirted with boxing, Conor McGregor has of late found himself sidelined by assault charges stemming from a backstage melee after a fight in April. And Ronda Rousey has defected to WWE. 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," Mark Shapiro, co-president of IMG, part of the Endeavor company, told THR when the streaming deal was announced. 

Meanwhile Fox is close to finalizing a five-year, $1 billion-plus deal with WWE to carry SmackDown Live on its broadcast network beginning in October 2019. The pact comes as Fox is ramping up a rebranding effort in anticipation of a sale of major assets to Disney. The "New Fox" will focus on sports and broad-skewing entertainment fare. And the network in January signed a massive five-year, $3 billion deal to carry Thursday Night Football beginning next season.