UFC at a crossroads with showman Conor McGregor's exit

A happy Conor McGregor days before his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov last October - the last mega UFC fight and one which marked the start of his professional and personal troubles.
A happy Conor McGregor days before his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov last October - the last mega UFC fight and one which marked the start of his professional and personal troubles.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Conor McGregor has retired and un-retired before, so it is possible he will return to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

But, if the Irishman, who loves to talk as much as he loves to fight and loves to win, has indeed left the sport for good after months of career and legal troubles, UFC will be without its most popular and recognisable fighter just as it is trying to expand its footprint in a crowded sports landscape.

"In the short run, they'll miss the attention that Conor gives them, no doubt," said Marshall Zelaznik, who spent 10 years as a UFC executive before leaving in 2016.

"For the longevity of a promotion, you need these kinds of stars."

UFC has churned out other athletes with crossover appeal.

Jon Jones, the first mixed martial artist with a Nike signature shoe, recently returned from a 15-month doping suspension.

Ronda Rousey, who has become a professional wrestler, regularly drew huge pay-per-view audiences as recently as 2016.

Now the sport is confronting a fallow period, with unfortunate timing.

ESPN, the new UFC broadcast partner, has taken over the sport's pay-per-view distribution and will air the main events exclusively on its streaming network, ESPN+.

"It's at a crossroads," David Carter, the director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, said of UFC.

The company's alignment with ESPN ushers a once renegade sport deeper into the mainstream.

On top of a reported five-year, US$1.5 billion (S$2.03 billion) deal struck last May that wrested the complete media rights package from Fox, ESPN paid an undisclosed fee to extend that deal till 2025 and become the only purveyor of pay-per-view fights in the United States.

These will be shown exclusively on ESPN+ and cost US$4.99 monthly. Main cards are an extra US$59.99.

ESPN has not released any viewership data from ESPN+ beyond acknowledging in its quarterly earnings call in February that two million subscribers had signed up and that it attracted 568,000 new subscribers in January, when the initial deal with UFC kicked in.

Even before McGregor retired last Tuesday, Carter said he believed this was a critical time for UFC, which is owned by Endeavor, a sports, entertainment and fashion content marketing company.

"Our metrics show that our fan base has significantly scaled," said Mark Shapiro, the president of Endeavor, "and that MMA viewers are buying the fights as much for the slate of fights as they are any one individual fighter."

According to Nielsen data, through five live telecasts on ESPN's main channels, UFC is averaging 1,462,000 viewers, or more than twice as many as its fights averaged (707,000) on FS1 last year.

Still, UFC appears to have reached a critical juncture in the same manner as other leagues that struggled with sustainable star power during transition seasons.

The challenge for UFC, Carter said, is to develop the new fighters to supplant the old guard when, to some extent, fans will have to pay for an ESPN+ subscription to get to know them.

"I do think they need to do a better job of building stars, making people stand out," Chuck Liddell, one of the early UFC stars, said in a telephone interview. "There's so many fights now. Back in the day, there used to be six UFC events. Now there's what, 40?"

Under ESPN's deal, there will be 42 nights of live events, including 12 on pay-per-view, which will increase the need for appealing fights.

Zelaznik joined UFC in 2006, in the middle of Liddell's career. He said he could not recall feeling anxious about unearthing new talent, or there being a lull.

"The biggest difference right now is that when I came on, UFC was the only game in town - it was the entire cola category," said Zelaznik, who oversaw UFC's pay-per-view and digital business and is now the chief executive officer at Glory Sports International.

"Now UFC is clearly the Coke and Pepsi, and then there's a lot of RC Cola and Shasta... People are familiar with it, so how do you make people care?"

That question is central to the growth of UFC, which wants to protect itself for the future while providing a return on ESPN's investment.

Michael Berman, executive vice-president of programming and general counsel for In Demand, which until recently distributed UFC fights to cable systems, said that interest had declined over the past few years, except for a few mega events.

Across its 25 cards in 2017 and 2018, UFC attracted 400,000 pay-per-view purchases - a threshold for what Berman considers substantial - only four times.

UFC events topped one million purchases once, when Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated McGregor last October, according to MMAPayout.com, a website that tracks the business of mixed martial arts.

In its 26 cards from 2015 to 2016, when Rousey and McGregor were fighting regularly, 13 pay-per-view bouts surpassed 400,000 purchases, and seven exceeded one million.

"There's so much content available that it becomes very difficult to differentiate between a lower-level pay-per-view and a fight that had been appearing on Fox or FS1," Berman said.

"If you've got three weeks of UFC programming and two are available for free and one is US$65, the one that's US$65 really has to stand out to pay that money.

"Without the big stars, it's difficult to convince people to spend."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2019, with the headline 'UFC at a crossroads with showman McGregor's exit'. Print Edition | Subscribe