Where Could the UFC Air Its Cards After ESPN Deal Ends?

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In the age of streaming media, the battle to secure rights to as much content that a streaming platform can is certainly a hot one. If you’ve just woken up from a coma, the UFC‘s current linear television and streaming media rights deal is set to expire at the close of the 2025 calendar year.

This pact was supposed to have expired already. In 2018, after a seven-year run on FOX Sports-owned properties, the UFC secured a new streaming media package inside the United States on the then-recently launched ESPN+ subscription-based streaming platform.

Subsequent to the digital rights being acquired by the Disney-owned cable platform, ESPN obtained linear TV rights to the MMA leader after FOX secured rights to WWE‘s SmackDown! in a five-year contract between 2019 and 2024, putting the sports entertainment promotion on Friday nights in a live window. Within two months of the ESPN/UFC deal going into effect, the parties extended the pact another two years. In so doing, ESPN+ assumed exclusive rights to all UFC pay-per-view cards from the April 13, 2019 UFC 236 main card to the present.

TKO Head Shapiro Discusses Impending Media Deal in Call

For the better part of the last year, the topic of the UFC’s United States linear and streaming media rights has been up for discussion. On May 8, it came up once more on a conference call between UFC and WWE parent company TKO Group Holdings President Mark Shapiro and all relevant parties.

While TKO has indicated a preference to have the UFC’s schedule of events remain on ESPN-owned properties,  he mentioned that the company is considering all would-be buyers in this preliminary stage.

“As far as multiple partners, one partner, we’ll see what happens when we get there,” Shapiro stated. “Our window opens in mid-January. It’s a three-month window with UFC and Walt Disney Company. They’re a great partner. They’re the best marketing machine in the business and they are the No. 1 premiere, automatic destination for sports fans everywhere, certainly in the US. That is the first-stop shop, that is the go-to when it comes to looking for sports events.”

It’s All Part of Business

Mark Shapiro is certainly right. There’s no doubt in any sports fan’s mind that ESPN has been and will continue to be the top destination for most marquee sporting events. If it’s a noteworthy game and the television rights aren’t already snatched up by another network and its associated subscription-based streaming property, ESPN’s got it on their air or on ESPN+.

The most notable example of this (outside of combat sports) is college football. Every Saturday from Labor Day weekend until the conference championships, ESPN’s properties marathon games from noon ET until past 1 am ET Sunday morning.

At the same time, to quote former Miami Marlins President David Samson’s sign-off phrase from his daily podcast: “It’s just business. It’s nothing personal.” Looking at all possible buyers is the gentlemanly side of business. With that having been said, where could the UFC end up if the ESPN deal ends without a renewal?

The UFC on TNT?

Since the 1989-1990 NBA season, Warner Bros. Discovery-owned TNT has aired games, currently doing so in Tuesday and/or Thursday timeslots. However, the long-term future of the package is in question with the NBA’s media rights in flux. Currently, Warner Bros. Discovery’s deal to carry NBA games lapses after 2025 and the NBA is strongly leaning toward a reunion with NBCUniversal. 

Although Warner Bros. Discovery has dipped its toes into the MMA pool with Bellator on Max, that promotion has a much more limited schedule of events compared to the near-weekly itinerary that the UFC offers. Further, the UFC offers something that the NBA could never: A 12-month schedule.

The United Kingdom’s TNT Sports holds UFC rights already.  If TNT loses the NBA, the network’s hallmark, a deal to acquire UFC rights in the United States suddenly becomes more tantalizing.

What About Netflix?

In recent times. streaming media giant Netflix has entered the sports media arena. The platform known for original series like the canceled Mr. Iglesias and exclusive worldwide streaming rights to reruns of Seinfeld broadcast its first live athletic competition, an exhibition tennis match between Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz this past March in The Netflix Slam.

They’ll also stream the Mike Tyson/Jake Paul fight from Dallas in July and will likely acquire rights to this year’s NFL Christmas Day games, something that Boomer Esiason hinted on his WFAN radio show earlier in the week. Next year, Netflix will stream Monday Night Raw on a weekly basis live in North America and the United Kingdom.

Given that TKO owns both WWE and the UFC, it wouldn’t be a far-fetched idea for the UFC to go to Netflix, but the service has had technical difficulties crop up when live events have been streamed in the past, like during last year’s Love is Blind reunion.

Technical difficulties during a live sporting event is the last thing that the UFC could possibly want if it winds up on Netflix.  That would be a warning sign to anybody.

Could the UFC Reunite With FOX?

Finally, the UFC could return to FOX Sports if the promotion and ESPN decide to part company at the end of 2025. If this comes to pass, it’d be 15 years removed from the initial deal with the fourth broadcast network. When the UFC first paired up with FOX, it brought Fight Night events to broadcast television, something that has continued on an occasional basis with events airing on ABC from January of 2021 to the present day.

FOX Sports did an amazing job bringing MMA back to over-the-air television in an occasional Saturday evening timeslot and made the UFC one of the highlights of the original programming lineup of FS1 when it launched in August of 2013. If the UFC and FOX Sports come to terms on a new deal, it’ll be more of the same.

However, given the changing media landscape in the years since FOX Sports and the UFC ended their previous pact, FOX would need its own premium streaming platform to run UFC pay-per-view events on in America. While FOX Corporation owns the Tubi service, it’s free. With streaming here to stay, a premium tier of Tubi would have to be added if the UFC and FOX Sports were to join forces again.

Final Thoughts

This story is far from over. It’ll be interesting to see how the negotiations play out. Where would you like to see the UFC end up?

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Drew Zuhosky has been writing about combat sports since May of 2018, coming to MMASucka after stints at Overtime Heroics and Armchair All-Americans. A graduate of Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, Drew is a charter member of the Youngstown Press Club. Prior to beginning his professional career, Drew was a sportswriter for YSU's student-run newspaper, The Jambar, where he supplied Press Box Perspective columns every week.