Is a tarnished UFC worth the risk to ESPN and Disney Studios?

Mixed martial arts’ biggest money-spinner can deliver a young, internet-savvy audience. But UFC has been hit by a number of unseemly controversies

On Saturday the UFC will return Rio de Janeiro for UFC 237. The event, which features a handful of former champions such as Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo, will mark the promotion’s second pay-per-view event since announcing an exclusive deal to host their PPV shows on ESPN’s new streaming service, ESPN+. The deal means that fight fans in the United States are required to have ESPN+ subscriptions in order to then purchase the UFC’s tentpole shows. Although the exclusive deal emphasizes ESPN’s confidence in the UFC product, there are still several risks associated with their investment.

In May 2018, the UFC and Disney, in conjunction with ESPN, signed an exclusive five-year media rights and distribution deal for live UFC content across all ESPN platforms. The entire rights package would cost ESPN $1.5bn over five years. The inaugural show took place in January 2019 and featured a champion v champion fight between TJ Dillashaw and Henry Cejudo. According to ESPN, the event resulted in 568,000 new subscribers, including 525,000 who signed up on the day of the fight alone. Two months later, the UFC extended its deal with ESPN until 2025 and announced that their PPV events would be purchased directly on ESPN+. However, while the event was a financial success and an impressive start to the partnership, it wasn’t without its fair share of controversy.

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