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As online streaming becomes required for MMA fans in the U.S., a new era of the UFC seems to be dawning. But do the pros outweigh the cons so far? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMA Junkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.
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Fowlkes: If It wasn’t clear already, Danny, we are now firmly in a new age for the UFC. Saturday night’s event in Nashville went down entirely on the ESPN+ streaming network. Same with last weekend’s event from London and the event the week before that in Wichita.
All these UFC Fight Nights that used to be on cable TV, where Joe Sports Fan could presumably stumble across them while careening through the channel guide? They’re now on the internet behind a paywall.
Still, for those of us who would follow this sport wherever it went, there are definite upsides. The pacing is much, much better on ESPN+ than it was on FOX Sports 1. And the monthly cost of ESPN+ is about half what UFC Fight Pass charges. Plus, everyone’s moving to streaming now, or so I’m told on a nearly weekly basis by the people who want my credit card info.
And yet, as the UFC prepares to make ESPN+ our only choice for residential pay-per-view purchases in the U.S., we must admit there are cons as well. The streaming experience isn’t always great and it can vary widely from one house to the next. I’m forgiving of that when I’m paying five bucks a month for some Fight Night quality content, but maybe I’ll be less so if it starts buffering during the main event on a $ 60 pay-per-view.
What do you see as the biggest pros and cons of the ESPN+ era so far? Is what we gain worth what we lose? And how do you see this streaming-centric approach affecting the future of the sport in these United States of America?
Downes: Well, I definitely experienced a con last night when I was over at my in-laws’ house. They’re fairly savvy with technology, but they don’t have a smart TV, Roku, PlayStation 4, etc.
That meant as Anthony Pettis and Stephen Thompson were getting ready to throw down, I was huddled over my tablet at their kitchen table. My father-in-law is a better than average MMA fan, so he was sitting next to me as we both glared at my 12.3-inch monitor. The fight was entertaining, but let’s just say the experience was lacking.
My in-laws aren’t the UFC’s target demographic, but I think it highlights the issues with streaming being the sole option to watch. As much as we are told that streaming is the future and people are cutting the cord, it’s still not the norm yet. At last check, there are 186.7 million U.S. adults with some type of pay TV service compared to 33 million cord-cutters. Those trends will continue, but there certainly has to be a point of diminishing returns. How many services have your credit card info right now?
As a point of principle, I don’t like the idea that I need to hurdle a paywall just for the right to pay even more money for a pay-per-view. In theory, I supposed you could subscribe and unsubscribe every time you wanted to watch one, but how likely is that? How many people have canceled a gym membership or magazine subscription in June when they stopped using it in March? Perhaps that’s part of the business calculus.
Like you said, the pacing has been better, so at least we aren’t hunched over a tablet screen for five hours. At what cost, though?
Maybe the powers at be have decided that MMA will never be a “mainstream” sport. Sure, a couple stars will break through, but Dana White’s dream of it being on par with soccer or basketball isn’t realistic. And if you ask me, the new shift does little to try to make the pie of MMA fandom any bigger.
Having said that, if the services become more friendly to the hardcores, shouldn’t we be happy? You aren’t a casual fan, so why should you care if it’s slightly more difficult to see an MMA event in the 50th largest U.S. city?
Fowlkes: What’s striking to me is how quickly the conventional wisdom on this topic has completely reversed. Five years ago, if your MMA promotion was mostly available on a streaming service with only limited exposure on cable TV, it was a sign that you weren’t doing great. It really wasn’t that long ago that a live TV deal was everything – not just to promoters but also fans.
We used to dream of the day we could just turn on the TV and see a big time MMA fight. And when the UFC signed with FOX, we had visions of a return to boxing’s golden age, when your grandfather would sit down with his corncob pipe and his bowl of jelly beans and watch a world title fight for free on one of the three channels his rabbit-eared TV picked up.
Now, in the blink of an eye, we’re moving in the opposite direction. Now you better have WiFi and a credit card if you want to join this party. That’s bound to leave some fans behind (not everyone has a smart TV, as you point out, or even internet that’s reliably good enough to handle the live stream). It also shuts some potential new fans out, since paywalls and subscription sign-ups inevitably end up erecting new barriers to entry.
At the same time, this does feel like the future we’re hurtling towards across all broadcast media. Maybe the UFC is just an early adopter, as it has been on several technological fronts. Then again, maybe the UFC and its owners at Endeavor are only seeing the guaranteed money they’re getting upfront from ESPN and willfully blocking everything else out.
Concerns for the future of the sport? Nah, it’ll be fine. How do you know? Because we said so. And what makes us so sure we’re right? Well, look at all this money we’re making. People this rich couldn’t possibly be wrong … right?
Downes: Didn’t they say the same thing about the people at Bear Stearns? That’s probably an unfair comparison to make, but your point still stands.
The way that the FOX deal played out still has reverberations on the current fan sentiment. You’re right that most people thought it was going to usher in a whole new era. It did, but not in the way we expected. Instead of becoming one of the four pillars of American sport, we were subjected to a lot of Farmers Only commercials and Skip Bayless barely feigning interest. The same people scrambling to find FS2 on their dials are the same people logging into their ESPN+ stream, so perhaps the barriers haven’t increased that much.
Right now, ESPN is the rebound. Look how nice they are! They totally respect your time and spend way more money than that last guy. We’ll see how long this honeymoon period lasts, but it’s difficult not to say things have improved.
As soon as my stream crashes during a PPV main event, you better believe we’ll be longing for the days we could give DirecTV our $ 64.99. There may be some grand five-year strategy (I’m personally skeptical), but it’s pretty clear that the UFC has a loyal, niche fanbase who will follow it no matter what hurdles its corporate overlords put in place.
You seem like the kind of guy who gets upset at his favorite band for “becoming too mainstream.” It looks like your favorite sport has hit a ceiling. Shouldn’t you be happy?
Ben Fowlkes is MMA Junkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMA Junkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.
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