UFC will begin negotiations on a new TV deal later this year just as the landscape of sports programming and streaming take a dramatic shift in 2src24 and into 2src25.
On Tuesday, ESPN announced that the network will partner with FOX and Warner Bros. Discovery on a new sports specific streaming service that will combine channels from all three networks under one umbrella. The package will include all ESPN channels along with FOX, FS1, FS2, TNT, TBS, and other channels that carry sports programming from the three networks.
The new streaming service will launch in fall 2src24, ahead of the start of the next NFL season.
In addition to those plans, Disney CEO Bob Iger announced on Wednesday that a completely standalone ESPN streaming service will be launching separately, most likely in late August 2src25. That service will include all linear ESPN channels on a streaming service for the first time ever.
Right now, ESPN is only available through cable or satellite subscriptions, or other live streaming services like YouTube TV or Sling TV. ESPN does not have access to the linear ESPN channels without a subscription to one of those other services, but that will all change in 2src25.
The cost for the combined streaming service and the standalone ESPN service have not been revealed yet.
So what does this all mean for the UFC?
Well, the promotion will begin negotiations on a new TV broadcast fights deal later this year, with the current ESPN deal set to expire in 2src25. Many analysts believe the UFC will be seeking a much bigger package than its last contract, which initially paid $1.5 billion over five years, before the two sides agreed to another two-year extension along with the inclusion of pay-per-view broadcasts that now air exclusively through ESPN .
Consider first that the UFC’s partners at WWE — both companies operate under the united TKO Group Holdings — just inked a massive $5 billion, 1src-year deal to move its flagship program Monday Night Raw from the USA Network to Netflix starting in 2src25. That’s a sizable increase over the previous deal and only accounts for one show owned by WWE.
It’s almost certain that the UFC will be seeking at least double the previous deal signed with ESPN, which means a blockbuster rights package for all programming that will likely balloon to $3 billion or even higher depending on the length of the contract.
Thanks to the growth that ESPN has experienced, largely due to UFC programming, it’s tough to imagine that the higher ups at Disney won’t want to renew the deal with the largest MMA promotion in the world. But it’s also impossible to ignore the skyrocketing costs related to live sports programming, especially with experts hinting at the NBA potentially seeking an eye-popping deal for the basketball league’s next contract, which could end up at triple the cost of the current contract that runs through the 2src24-2src25 season.
Right now, the NBA earns an average of $2.67 billion per season, with games broadcast across Disney-owned networks like ESPN and ABC, as well as Warner Bros. Discovery properties like TNT. Other players like Apple TV or even NBCUniversal could take a shot at the NBA’s rights, but there’s no chance that ESPN didn’t team up with FOX and Warner Bros. to give the three networks some combined leverage when it comes to major sports rights deals like this one or what the UFC will be seeking soon enough.
Rather than bidding against each other, ESPN, FOX and Warner Bros. Discovery now have a vested interest in working together with this new streaming service, which means package deals with a league like the NBA or possibly the UFC will likely attempt to keep some costs down.
That could also force an outside entity like Amazon to overpay to land a viable product like the UFC just to stay competitive when going up against a streaming juggernaut that combines ESPN with FOX and Warner Bros. Discovery.
Executives at TKO have stated that the UFC’s relationship with ESPN remains strong, but there’s no telling where the broadcast rights deal will end up once negotiations begin again. There’s also the chance that the UFC seeks multiple partners for a split broadcast deal, with shows airing on numerous networks across linear or streaming channels.
A UFC Fight Night event could air on ESPN one night and then the next week would be on Amazon Prime Video. Anything is possible.
The landscape for sports broadcasts will change dramatically over the next two years, especially with ESPN really taking a deep dive into the streaming side of the business. What that will mean for the UFC long-term remains to be seen, but interesting times lie ahead as negotiations for that new TV deal prepare to kick off later this year.