On Tuesday morning, ESPN and UFC announced a multi-year broadcast rights agreement. ESPN will broadcast 15 live UFC events per year on their new ESPN+ subscription streaming service beginning in January of 2019.
This means there’s going to be a whole bunch more television time on Fox for the Big East starting in the 2018-19 season.
UFC and Fox Sports signed a broadcast rights contract that began back in 2011, and ever since FS1 launched in August of 2013, UFC live programming has been a mainstay on the cable network. Whether it’s the Fight Night branded shows or pay-per-view preliminary cards, there’s been a near overload of UFC live broadcasts on FS1 over the past five years. That contract is running out at the end of the year, though, and those shows are no longer going to be on FS1.
ESPN+ is going to be airing 15 UFC Fight Night shows per year. Since UFC hasn’t announced their full schedule for the rest of 2018 yet, we can look at the 2017 schedule to see that the mixed martial arts promotion ran 21 Fight Night shows that year along with four UFC On Fox shows that aired on the traditional broadcast Fox network. Of those 21 Fight Night shows, five of them were exclusive to UFC’s Fight Pass streaming service, and one aired on FXX, the little brother to Fox’s FX Network. The remaining 15 shows — hey, look at that magic number, the exact number of shows that ESPN+ is contracted to broadcast — all aired on FS1, and I presume that UFC would have preferred that the FXX show aired on FS1 as well.
That’s 21 Fox Sports shows in 52 weeks. 21 blocks of at least three hours of prime time live television broadcasting that is just going up in smoke for Fox Sports and FS1. A lot of those shows had preliminary cards that also aired on FS1 or FS2, which meant that the broadcast window extends out to five or six hours, occupying quality afternoon/evening broadcast time as well as the prime time window. During calendar year 2017, nine of those 21 shows — nearly half — aired during the four month timeframe that matches up with the college basketball regular season.
Beginning in January, Fox Sports is going to need to fill those broadcast windows with something, and well, the Big East will be happy to help.
This past season, Marquette men’s basketball saw four straight games in February pushed off national television and down to regional broadcasts on Fox Sports Wisconsin and the like. Two of those games coincided with a UFC event on the same day, one UFC On Fox show and one UFC pay-per-view that aired a preliminary card on FS1. A third game took place the day before a UFC Fight Night event. Is it safe to say that Fox Sports realigns their entire broadcasting schedule without those UFC events in there? Absolutely. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that Marquette gets the call-up to FS1 or Fox, but when Fox Sports needs to fill time, it gets a lot easier, that’s for sure.
There is one thing that’s not mentioned in the UFC/ESPN press release, and the news story on MMA Fighting, our SB Nation sister site, doesn’t mention it either. Remember when I mentioned those pay-per-view preliminary cards back in the third paragraph? During 2017, UFC ran 12 numbered pay-per-view shows. Nine of them featured preliminary broadcasts on FS1, while the other three — all outside of the college basketball season — aired prelims on either FX or FXX. There’s no word from UFC as to what will happen to those preliminary broadcasts. Nothing in the ESPN+ press release discusses where those prelim fights will air. However, I think it’s safe to say that they’re not going to be on Fox Sports. The prelims airing on on a television channel essentially operate as advertising that a PPV event is going to start once they wrap up. If Fox Sports is not going to be broadcasting their own full live UFC events, I can’t possibly see them having any interest in running what amounts to advertising for UFC’s big money events. If that’s the case, that’s another 12 calendar days where Fox Sports suddenly needs something to fill time on their networks. In 2017, four of those PPV events happened during the college basketball season. Combine those four dates with the nine I mentioned earlier and all of a sudden we’re up to 13 days of prime time programming in a 17 week season. That is a lot of real estate.
There is, however, a caveat to all of this. Fox had an exclusive window to renegotiate with UFC open a while back, and that window ended without a deal being struck. Fox Sports has known this was a possibility for a long time now, and because they’re not dummies, they’ve been exploring possibilities of what to do to replace all of that UFC programming. One possibility is signing a deal with WWE. Fox already snagged the rights to the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package, although that won’t impact the Big East all that much. Signing WWE to a rights deal would have a major impact, though. The plan, as reported by Sporting News in early March, would put Raw, WWE’s flagship Monday night program, on big broadcast Fox, while SmackDown, the Tuesday night mainstay, would go to FS1.
That’s every single Tuesday night of the year occupied by two hours of live WWE programming.
Remember when I said UFC occupied 13 prime time windows on Fox Sports in a 17 week season? WWE on Fox would occupy 17 prime time windows in that 17 week season. If that comes to pass, it solves Fox Sports’ real estate problem very, very quickly, and could, in theory, actually make things worse for the Big East. That’s without getting into the possibility of ancillary programming (NXT? PPV pre-shows? The return of Saturday Night’s Main Event?) also airing on Fox.
With UFC officially off to ESPN, that WWE deal for Fox just leapt closer to reality. However, the WWE broadcast package is incredibly valuable to NBC/Universal, as Raw and SmackDown are consistently the most watched programs on cable television. The USA Network isn’t going to just let WWE wander off, but Fox can put their full force behind their offer now.
WWE’s contract with NBC/Universal isn’t going to expire until September of 2019, so the 2018-19 season should be a very good one for the Big East in terms of television broadcasts. Past that? It’s hard to say right now. 2018-19 will be the sixth year of a 12 year contract between the Big East and Fox Sports, which means we’re officially moving into “evaluate the future” territory for both sides. If WWE ends up sharing a network with the Big East when Year Seven kicks off? Well, we’ll see what happens.