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Where could UFC land on US TV if the ESPN deal isn’t renewed?

In the age of streaming media, the battle to secure the rights to as much content as a streaming platform allows is certainly an intense battle. If you just woke up from a coma, the UFC’s current linear television and streaming media rights deal expires at the end of the 2025 calendar year.

This pact is said to have already expired. In 2018, after a seven-year run on FOX Sports properties, the UFC secured a new streaming media package in the United States on the then newly launched ESPN+ subscription-based streaming platform.

After digital rights were acquired by the Disney-owned cable platform, ESPN acquired linear TV rights for the MMA leader after FOX secured the rights to WWE’s. SmackDown! in a five-year deal between 2019 and 2024, putting the sports entertainment promotion into a live window on Friday evenings. Within two months of the ESPN/UFC deal going into effect, the sides extended the pact for another two years. In doing so, ESPN+ took over exclusive rights to all UFC pay-per-view cards from the UFC 236 main card from April 13, 2019 to the present.

TKO head Shapiro discusses impending media deal during a phone call

For much of the past year, the topic of the UFC’s linear and streaming media rights in the United States has been up for debate. On May 8, it came up again during a conference call between UFC and WWE parent company TKO Group Holdings president Mark Shapiro and all relevant parties.

While TKO has indicated its preference for the UFC’s event schedule to remain on ESPN properties, he said the company is considering all potential suitors at this preliminary stage.

“As far as multiple partners, one partner, we’ll see what happens when we get there,” Shapiro said. “Our counter will open in mid-January. It’s a three-month stint with UFC and Walt Disney Company. They are a great partner. They’re the best marketing machine in the business and they’re the #1 premiere, automatic destination for sports fans everywhere, especially in the US. That’s the first-stop shop, that’s the go-to when it comes to finding sporting events.”

It’s all part of doing business

Mark Shapiro is certainly right. There is no doubt in any sports fan’s mind that ESPN is and will continue to be the top destination for most major sporting events. If it’s a notable game and the television rights haven’t already been acquired by another network and its associated subscription-based streaming property, ESPN has it on the air or on ESPN+.

The most notable example of this (outside of martial arts) is college football. Every Saturday from Labor Day weekend until the conference championships, marathon games from ESPN’s properties from noon ET until after 1 a.m. ET Sunday morning.

At the same time, to quote former Miami Marlins president David Samson’s parting line from his daily podcast: “It’s just business. It’s not personal.” Looking at all potential buyers is the kind side of business. That said, where could the UFC end up if the ESPN deal ends without an extension?

The UFC on TNT?

Since the 1989–90 NBA season, TNT, owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, matches broadcast, currently in Tuesday and/or Thursday time slots. However, the long-term future of the package is in question with the NBA’s media rights in flux. Currently, the Warner Bros. deal is ongoing. Discovery to release NBA games after 2025 and the NBA is strongly leaning towards a reunion with NBCUniversal.

Although Warner Bros. Discovery has dipped its toes into the MMA pool with Bellator on Max, that promotion has a much more limited event schedule compared to the almost weekly itinerary that the UFC offers. Furthermore, the UFC offers something the NBA could never offer: a year-round schedule.

The British TNT Sports already has UFC rights. If TNT loses the NBA, the network’s hallmark, a deal to acquire UFC rights in the United States suddenly becomes more tempting.

What about Netflix?

Recently. streaming media giant Netflix has entered the sports media arena. The platform known for original series like the canceled ones Mr. Iglesias and exclusive worldwide streaming rights to reruns of Seinfeld broadcast its first live athletics match last March, an exhibition tennis match between Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz in The Netflix Slam.

They will also stream the Mike Tyson/Jake Paul fight from Dallas in July and will likely acquire rights to this year’s NFL Christmas Day games, something Boomer Esiason hinted at earlier this week on his WFAN radio show. Netflix will stream next year Monday evening Raw live weekly in North America and the United Kingdom.

Since TKO owns both WWE and the UFC, it wouldn’t be a far-fetched idea if the UFC moved to Netflix, but the service has experienced technical issues when streaming live events in the past, such as during the past year Love is blind meeting.

Technical glitches during a live sporting event are the last thing the UFC wants when it lands on Netflix. That would be a warning sign for everyone.

Could the UFC reunite with FOX?

Finally, the UFC could return to FOX Sports if the promotion and ESPN decide to part ways at the end of 2025. If this happens, it would be 15 years removed from the original deal with the fourth broadcast network. When the UFC first partnered with FOX, it brought Fight Night events to television, something that has continued on and off with events airing on ABC from January 2021 to the present day.

FOX Sports did a great job bringing MMA back to air television in a Saturday night timeslot and made the UFC one of the highlights of FS1’s original programming when it launched in August 2013. Sport agrees on a new deal, it will be more of the same.

However, given the changing media landscape in the years since FOX Sports and the UFC ended their previous pact, FOX would need its own premium streaming platform to host UFC pay-per-view events in America. Although FOX Corporation owns the Tubi service, it is free. Now that streaming is here to stay, a premium tier of Tubi would have to be added if the UFC and FOX Sports were to join forces again.

Final thoughts

This story is far from over. It will be interesting to see how the negotiations go. Where would you like to see the UFC end up?