The UFC on ESPN era will debut with an eye-catching card for UFC Fight Night 143 in Brooklyn. But how will the new partnership fare?
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In late September, UFC COO Lawrence Epstein visited ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters for the first time. “It was just exciting as a sports fan to see the whole campus,” Epstein said, but the biggest highlight might have come before he got out of his car. Turning onto ESPN Drive, Epstein caught a glimpse of a UFC flag fluttering alongside one with the ESPN logo. “Frankly, it was one of those surreal moments,” he said. “It’s always been a dream of ours to be in partnership with ESPN.” Saturday, that dream comes to life.
Four fights will air on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. before the action moves to ESPN+ for a main card featuring Henry Cejudo, T.J. Dillashaw, and Greg Hardy (yes, that Greg Hardy). UFC Fight Night 143: Brooklyn is also being called UFC on ESPN+ 1, the first in a five-year series of events agreed to in a $1.5 billion deal last May.
Epstein’s Bristol visit was part of a larger meet-and-greet for the two organizations. Executives swapped demographics research and strategic visions. UFC President Dana White, no stranger on campus, spoke in front of scores of ESPN employees from across departments, selling them on his sport’s power.
A month later, Russell Wolff became ESPN+’s general manager. He celebrated the promotion by planning a trip to Toronto, where he’d watch his first fight in person, taking in UFC 231 alongside White. ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has emphasized growing E+, and the UFC deal remains the largest investment he’s made with the $4.99/month premium service in mind. So it was only natural that the company would grow its coverage of the sport across platforms.
This week, ESPN released a 30-minute documentary on Cejudo and Dillashaw for its app. A feature on “The UFC’s Must-See Moves” took the top spot on ESPN.com. Paige VanZant, who will fight Rachael Ostovich Saturday, appeared on another Disney platform, ABC’s Good Morning America.
“Obviously ESPN is spending a tremendous amount of its energy, resources, and inventory to support the product,” Epstein said. “Being the flagship product so far on [ESPN+] has brought a lot of benefits.” In the past, UFC was seeing double-digit percentage boosts in pay-per-view sales each time ESPN brought a desk to record shows from the site of fights, offering exposure and credibility. “Now as we move forward with a true relationship,” Epstein said, “that is just going to get turbocharged.”
ESPN, meanwhile, is hoping to draw an audience to its streaming service as it looks for new profit opportunities in a changing media environment. Beyond the 42 fight nights on ESPN and ESPN+ this year, fans can watch previous fights on-demand and also buy pay-per-views directly on the platform (with ESPN getting a cut in the process). This week, the ESPN app was redesigned to promote ESPN+ while also adding personalization and offline features for subscribers.
As Saturday nears, corporate counterparts at nearly every level have been talking daily. UFC will continue to produce the event, as it did during its previous arrangement with Fox Sports, but new graphics are coming.
On the ESPN side, Wolff does not expect his service to run into the authentication and buffering issues that stymied other digital contenders in 2018. “We’re confident in our ability to do live sports at scale,” he said. “BAMTech has a heritage of doing that in the streaming world, as does ESPN with authenticated television.”
It remains to be seen how UFC fans will receive Greg Hardy, who will fight Allen Crowder in the night’s penultimate match. A former Pro Bowl defensive end, Hardy was accused of assaulting an ex-girlfriend in 2014. Found guilty of assault and communicating threats, the charges and sentence were dropped upon appeal after the victim failed to appear in court.
Thursday, ESPN’s top MMA voice, Ariel Helwani—whose reporting has drawn White’s ire in the past—said the company was “incredibly tone-deaf” to schedule Hardy’s UFC debut on the night of ESPN’s first telecast and just hours after Ostovich, a domestic violence survivor, returns to the octagon.
“Regardless of who you are and what you do, there’s going to be people that hate you,” Hardy said Wednesday. “You’re going to have to deal with things. These are just my burdens and my downfalls. It’s what I have to deal with. It doesn’t bother me, and it’s something I want to face head-on.”
JOE BUCK AND TROY AIKMAN TALK GOFF
If Jared Goff completes a deep pass Sunday in the Superdome, you can picture Joe Buck and Troy Aikman reacting in the booth by turning to each other, each with a look that says Wow—and a thought about how different the Rams quarterback looked the first time they saw him in Los Angeles.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Buck and Aikman called the Rams’ first game back in the Los Angeles Coliseum, and beforehand observed a Jeff Fisher-led practice. “We watched Goff run the scout team during a semi-windy day and Troy and I looked at each other like, Man, the ball is just coming out terribly,” Buck said this week. “It was all over the place.”
This year, the pair has often been on hand to observe the quarterback’s continued evolution, from his five-touchdown outing on FOX’s first Thursday Night Football game to his more managerial, 186-yard performance in last week’s divisional win over the Cowboys. Along the way, Aikman couldn’t help but see a bit of his own course playing out again.
Aikman finished his first season 0-11. “My third year, they brought in Norv Turner and immediately the trajectory changed,” he said. “One year after that we were winning Super Bowls and I was looked at as a completely different QB.” Like Goff, Aikman’s first NFC championship game came on the road in his third playoff showing. Aikman outgunned Steve Young in that one and then tallied four touchdowns in a Super Bowl romp.
Given the competition, Goff will likely need similar outings. He’s joined in the final four by likely MVP Patrick Mahomes as well as future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The remaining teams finished first, second, third and fourth in points per game during the season.
“If you are Jared Goff, you’ve proven you can play,” Buck said. “Now it’s time to go win the whole thing.”
Aikman has said that Goff ought to give coach Sean McVay 10% of whatever contract he signs next, after the coaching prodigy rejuvenated the former No. 1 pick’s career. However, Aikman added this week that Goff has also contributed to McVay’s immediate success (which the rest of the league now seems intent on duplicating).
“On the field, (Goff) doesn’t seem to get flustered, and I think that’s especially a good combo with Sean McVay,” Aikman said. “Sean is a pretty excitable guy. It may be the perfect fit for him as a coach to have someone like Jared who is real even-keeled.”
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• The Bob Costas era at NBC is officially over.
• ESPN feature writer and reporter Arash Markazi is leaving for a new post at the Los Angeles Times, where he will cover “emerging trends in sports.”
• WNBA Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson is working for the SEC Network as a college basketball analyst this winter.
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