Media Circus: What is the rights future of the UFC?

UFC's current rights deal with Fox ends in 2018. The sport could bring new viewers under ESPN's umbrella. Are we due for a bidding war?
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While thinking about the coming media onslaught regarding coverage of the Aug. 26 Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight in Las Vegas, I was reminded of an excellent Sports Business Daily piece from last November from writers Liz Mullen and John Ourand. The two SBD staffers provided reported analysis on how the UFC planned to approach its upcoming media rights deals, expected to be one of the largest coming over the next couple of years given how many leagues/colleges are already locked up in long-term deals.

UFC’s current media deal with Fox Sports ends in 2018, with Fox Sports holding an exclusive window to negotiate a renewal starting later this year. Per the SBD reporters, the new owners of the UFC (WME-IMG) plan to take to market the rights to four annual broadcast windows that Fox now holds, six annual cable events and weekly programming on FS1, plus the UFC’s over-the-top Fight Pass service. The new rights deal is not expected to include the UFC’s lucrative pay-per-view business, which will likely be retained by WME-IMG. “But some media executives believe any winning bidder will have more of a say in what matches will be part of the UFC’s pay-per-view events,” wrote Mullen and Ourand.

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The reporters speculated that Fox would be the logical front-runner to renew the deal given how important UFC programming is to FS1’s schedule and ratings. They also speculated—naturally—that ESPN would examine the possibility of getting in on the sport given UFC could potentially bring new eyeballs under the ESPN umbrella. Would that be a good move for ESPN? Well, Dave Meltzer of had some thoughts on this as did Bleacher Report’s Mike Chiappetta. Ourand and Mullen pointed out that a major rights deal for the UFC would have little effect on ESPN’s affiliate deals with pay-TV distributors—deals that account for most of ESPN’s revenue. But it’s still a big sport featuring many young male watchers with money to spend. The SBD reporters also said to keep an eye on Turner Sports.

We are in a particularly quiet time in sports given, as the Sports Media Watch website smartly pointed out, the NBA Finals had one of its earliest end dates in 30 years. (The NFL exhibition season begins August 3.) This gives FS1 and ESPN immense bandwidth—as well as creative pressure—to come up with topics of interest, knowing they can’t rely on the NFL and NBA staples. Something to watch is how much tonnage the Mayweather-McGregor event gets on both Fox/FS1 and ESPN. It will also be interesting to see if ESPN ratchets up boxing talk across its platforms following this CBS Sports report that Top Rank and ESPN/ABC are forming a partnership that will feature seven shows in 2017 and 18 in 2018.

Personally, I am in agreement with my old SI colleague Chris Mannix, who wrote that this event looks like a serious “swindle” for those purchasing an exhibition on the order of Golden State against Appalachian State. (For me, it feels like the Simpsons episode when Lyle Lanley was selling a monorail to the people of Springfield.) It’s going to be interesting to see how much the McGregor talk extends beyond this fight and onto UFC as a whole because it’s a larger tell on longterm UFC interest. From talking to some ESPN-ers in-house, I’d put the company’s interest in a UFC media rights deal at around 30% but that could fluctuate given whatever packaging, pricing and the scope of rights UFC brings to market. It’s a much more important property for Fox Sports to retain so I’d be stunned if they don’t ride McGregor-Mayweather on its platforms nearly every day until Aug. 26.

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( examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Connor Schell is not a household name in the sports media but few people will have more impact on you heading forward if you consume ESPN’s brand (which means most of you reading). On Friday ESPN formally announced upper management changes and the biggest winner to come out of House Lannister was Schell, who has been named ESPN’s Executive Vice President, Content. He now oversees all of ESPN's content creation across ESPN’s television, digital and print platforms. He will also continue his previous responsibilities overseeing ESPN Films, Original Content, Audio and the company's Talent Office. He reports directly to ESPN president John Skipper.

We’ll ultimately learn what this means for ESPN long term creatively—it does put Schell and executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Justin Connolly (he oversees distribution, strategy and development) as the frontrunners to follow Skipper—but here are some top line thoughts for whatever it’s worth:

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• Prior to this promotion Schell was overseeing ESPN Films, the ESPYs, ESPN’s afternoon lineup, ESPN2’s daytime lineup, management of NBA studio shows, ESPN Audio, and the talent office. He is a big believer in the upcoming Mike Greenberg solo project and handpicked the show’s producer (Bill Wolff). He’s also a huge fan of Erik Rydholm so if you are talent that has worked on shows like PTI, Around The Horn, Highly Questionable, etc. you are in a strong position. (Thus, the upcoming Bomani Jones/Pablo Torre show.) Schell is a huge supporter of producer Kevin Wildes, who is in charge of ESPN’s NBA studio shows. Same with Libby Geist, who now runs ESPN Films.

• Said one longtime agent whose company has negotiated with Schell: “He's a reasonable guy. Doesn't drink the Bristol Kool-Aid. Probably from growing up at ESPN in New York City. Smart. Long-term and big-picture thinker. Great demeanor. Nothing becomes personal. Big fan. He's also decisive. Should help unclog the wheels.”

• Connolly has oversight of ESPN’s future—tech and platforms—which makes him the favorite to succeed Skipper.

• Schell gained a ton of juice with Disney bosses thanks to the success of “O.J.: Made in America,” which is the most successful thing ESPN has ever done creatively. It won the Best Documentary Oscar in February.

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• Three executives who used to report to Skipper now report to Schell: Stephanie Druley (senior vice president of events and studio production), Rob King (senior vice president of SportsCenter and News and Information) and Norby Williamson (executive vice president and executive editor). That will be an interesting management dynamic.

• Schell is very tight with Bill Simmons going back to the early days of ESPN Films and the 30 for 30 series. But I would not read Schell’s elevation as any sign that Simmons will return to ESPN. Simmons has his own company, editorial freedom and employs a lot of people. He’s not returning to ESPN this decade.

• Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling, adds oversight of ESPN’s relationship with BamTech, a vital relationship for the company heading forward. On a personal note, Magnus is one of the few ESPN executives to publicly (instead of privately) fire back on FS1 execs, which makes him a favorite of writers and reporters covering sports media.

• ESPN announced that executive vice president, global strategy and original content Marie Donoghue will leave ESPN at the end of the year. This is significant. For years Donoghue was one of the most powerful behind the scenes figures at ESPN and a key member of Skipper’s inner circle. Clearly, that changed. At ESPN, Donoghue was the top business executive for FiveThirtyEight, The Undefeated and ESPN Films. She notably was the top business executive in charge of Grantland, including when ESPN folded the site. Donoghue did not do many long-form interviews—I requested her roughly 10 times over the course of the last year after Skipper decided not to re-sign Simmons and Grantland was shuttered. Those requests were turned down, no doubt via counsel from ESPN PR. She finally agreed in April 2016 and that interview is here. It was a mess with she and Simmons at the end of Grantland and that's part of her resume. But Donoghue is the person who came to fix The Undefeated and hired Kevin Merida, one of ESPN's best hires this decade.

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• Video on demand will be a major internal ESPN initiative heading forward.

• Schell was one of the point people who chose Caitlyn Jenner for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2015, one of the more controversial decisions for ESPN. At the time I wrote a long story about why Schell and ESPY producer Maura Mandt made that decision if you are interested.

• Schell and Fox Sports National Networks president Jamie (Paw Patrol) Horowitz are very close friends away from the office. It will be interesting to see when Schell is asked to comment on a network run by a personal pal.

2. Episode 124 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features a return of the sports media roundtable with Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand and columnist Jimmy Traina.

On this podcast, we discuss the NBA Finals ratings, the best since Michael Jordan’s last Finals in 1998; the impact of super teams on television ratings; why NBC opts to put two Stanley Cup Finals games on NBCSN; the decision by NBC News and Megyn Kelly’s to interview Alex Jones for its news program and what the longterm fallout will be; what ESPN will do with Rex Ryan if anything; the Sports Business Journal report on how the median age of sports television viewers is soaring upward; who is charge of Fox Sports PR; the NFL Network’s directive for talent not to talk politics on social media; and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

SI Media Podcast: Why were the NBA Finals ratings the best since 1998?

Podcast breakdown:

• The robust NBA Finals ratings for the Warriors-Cavaliers. – 1:30

• Why NBC opts to put two Stanley Cup Games on NBCSN – 8:30

• The Sports Business Journal report on how nearly all sports are seeing a quick rise in average age of TV viewers – 12:00

• How will ESPN management handle the fracas involving Rex Ryan, if they react at all – 17:30

• NBC News and Megyn Kelly’s decision to put conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on its airwaves – 21:30

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• The NFL Network telling its employees not to talk politics on social media and not to get into back and forths with viewers – 29:30

• How social media impacts those who believe ESPN has gone left as an organization – 33:00

• Who is running Fox Sports PR? – 40:30

• FS1 on FS1 crime – 44:00

• Jimmy on Britt McHenry’s defense of a Philly reporter – 48:00

• The options for those at ESPN who were laid off by the company – 51:30

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher

'He wrote like he was shooting for something': Remembering SI legend Frank Deford

3. This Tuesday night’s episode (10 p.m. ET/PT) of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel will close with a remembrance of Frank Deford, who spent 22 years with Real Sports, reporting on 117 stories.

3a. Mentoring was highly important to John Saunders, but as he guided ESPNers such as Sage Steele and Adnan Virk through the company landscape, what was unknown to most of his colleagues was that the longtime ESPN anchor was struggling desperately with depression and considered suicide. The low point for Saunders came in February 2012 when he was driving on the Tappan Zee Bridge, 25 miles north of Manhattan, and a few miles from his home in Westchester County. The broadcaster pulled over and considered jumping off the bridge. He writes about the experience in a thoughtful posthumous memoir, Playing Hurt: My Journey From Despair To Hope. Best-selling author John U. Bacon and Saunders were working on the book prior to Saunders passing away last August at age 61. Bacon wrote that he continued to work on the manuscript with the help of Saunders’ family, friends and physicians. “But in the end this is John’s story, told from his point of view, based primarily on his recollections,” writes Bacon. The book is due to publish on Aug. 8, 2017. This column was sent an early copy last week by the author. Here’s a look at what Saunders wrote.

In posthumous memoir, John Saunders details depression struggles, suicidal thoughts

4.Sports pieces of note this week:

• This is an astounding personal story from Mitch Albom

• Deadspin’s Lindsey Adler on the future of Baseball Prospectus

• When crazy trumps common sense: Yahoo’s Chris Mannix on the McGregor-Mayweather fight

• SI’s Lee Jenkins wrote a great piece on the Warriors’ title run

• From New York Times writer Jere Longman: Track’s Most Resilient (and Suspect) Record Is in Danger

• Via’s Eric Raskin: The story of Ike Ibeabuchi, the great lost heavyweight

• SI’s Peter King had an exit interview with longtime Packers beat writer, Bob McGinn

Non-sports pieces of note:

• A piece from Politico I wish every American would read: Will the Georgia Special Election Get Hacked?

• From Ginger Thompson of National Geographic: How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico

• From Vox: The case for prescription heroin

• 'Y’all Sent Me to Washington at an Interesting Time.' The Atlantic’s Molly Ball on a freshman Republican lawmaker

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• No writer is better sourced on Robert Mueller than Garrett M. Graff

• The Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Hennessey caught up with actor Robert Duvall

• From Indira Lakshmanan‏ of Poynter: My advice for facing liars

• From New York Magazine: The Bullet, the Cop, the Boy

USA Today did a a yearlong investigation on how port trucking companies in southern California treat drivers

5. The U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier on June 11 averaged 2,052,000 viewers on FS1, the most-watched World Cup Qualifier in the network’s history.

5a.The Holiday Bowl is moving from ESPN to FS1.

5b. WNBA player and former Stanford star Chiney Ogwumike was named a co-host of a SportsCenter platform that will air across Africa as part of Kwesé ESPN Multimedia Collaboration.

5c. The U.S. television debut of the Royal Meeting in Ascot, Berkshire, England—the most famous horse racing festival in the world—occurs this week on NBCSN. The network said they will air 22.5 hours from the Meeting, beginning Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. ET.  The event features 30 races. Here’s a preview from the BBC.

5d. SI’s Maggie Gray on why the Mayweather-McGregor should not count as Mayweather’s 50th fight:

5e. Kovert Creative recently took a strategic investment in Howler Media, a multimedia platform that covers global soccer from an American perspective (they have a sweet glossy mag) and put out a video featuring Will Arnett, Jack Black and Sarah Silverman that echoes the famous ads Sports Illustrated did in the 1990s for its football phone. Kovert reps a ton of comics (Jimmy Kimmel, most prominently) as well as Bill Simmons.

5f. Longtime New York Times sports media Richard Sandomir has a new book out, The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic. The book examines the story behind the seminal 1942 movie, The Pride of the Yankees.

5g.Great blog post from Terry Foster, a former The Detroit News sports writer and on-air personality for 97.1 FM The Ticket.