In September 2018, it was announced that Eleven Sports had acquired the exclusive rights to show live UFC coverage in the UK and Ireland. BT Sport had held its licence to screen the UFC since 2013.
The interest in the mixed martial arts sport has also grown hugely on this side of the Atlantic in that time period thanks to the success of fighters such as Conor McGregor and Michael Bisping. BT Sport seemed to have got in just at the right time before the UFC explosion in Europe.
Eleven Sports, owned by Leeds United’s Andrea Radizzani, snapped up the rights to show the UFC from 2019 onwards. The new streaming sports network added UFC rights to its coverage of Serie A and La Liga football as they looked to take on Sky Sports and BT Sport in the UK.
BT announced that they had not wanted to enter into a bidding-war with Eleven Sports as the organisation felt they had moved on from their ‘start-up’ days. Paying over the odds was the norm in order to get into the live sports market.
Fast forward to December 2018 – a potential deal between Eleven Sports and Virgin Media collapses due to a disagreement over pricing, leaving Eleven Sports with no TV ‘carrier’ for their channels. The UFC then triggered a get-out clause from its Eleven Sports contract.
BT Sport re-entered emergency discussions with the UFC as a result of this fallout and apparently managed to bag themselves a nice cut-price deal at such a late stage.
The deal ensures that all numbered UFC events and Fight Nights will be exclusively live to UK and Ireland viewers on BT Sport. The channel will also show over 100 hours of ‘non-live’ UFC content through documentaries, interviews, and fly-on-the-wall style footage following the likes of Darren Till and Conor McGregor.
Of course, one question on many people’s lips is whether we will see some UFC events only made available to pay-per-view (PPV) customers in 2019. BT Sport recently started showing PPV boxing on their newly-launched BT Sport Box Office channel which can be accessed via BT TV and the Sky TV platform.
This experiment with PPV combat sports is likely to be continued with PPV UFC fights in the not-too-distant future. They are probably just waiting for the ideal opportunity to bill another matchup in 2019 as the biggest fight in UFC history.
Characters sell fights. If you have at least one fighter with a larger-than-life persona, then you’re onto a winner. Look at the market Dublin’s Conor McGregor has forged for himself since bursting onto the UFC scene in 2013. Arguably, there has been no bigger name in world sport over the last three years than McGregor. Yes, his last fight was a defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov but he’s expected to make a comeback at some stage in 2019. There has also been some recent talk of a ‘Khabib v Conor’ rematch. If BT and the UFC are going to go down the PPV route – and you can be pretty sure that they are – then the UFC event with that fight on its card could well be the first one to charge fans an extra PPV fee.
If BT Sport and the UFC decide to take this step its unclear if the choice would be a wise one. The UFC is still a relatively young sports brand and it could be seen as either an extremely brave or damagingly foolish move to take their fans down the PPV road.
Much like professional boxing is running the risk of pricing some fans out of watching their beloved sport, the UFC could be shooting themselves in the foot by doing the same to theirs.
As fans, things are pretty much fine the way they are. We expect to pay a basic subscription for live and exclusive sports coverage. We’ve grown accustomed to that since the expansion of Sky Sports in the ‘90s. It’s the same now for UFC fans. However, having to pay another PPV fee for certain events often feels like another kick in the teeth for consumers.
BT Sport and the UFC need to consider this before the next global UFC event that could demand a PPV market. Unfortunately, I think we already know what choice they’re going to make.