Thu. Sep 20th, 2018

Skipper’s Exit Led to ESPN’s UFC Deal

John Ourand from Sports Business Daily has a new piece up today about how new TV deals for the UFC and the WWE came together at ESPN and Fox respectively. In the piece Ourand details just how valuable the UFC believed its product to be. According to the article, the UFC initially wanted between $400 and $450 million for its TV rights. That figure narrowed the field of potential suitors and the eventual price tag came in at only 50% of that.

But what is really interesting is that ESPN never would have made a deal with the UFC if the World Wide Leader in Sports hadn’t undergone a change in leadership. Ourand writes that the abrupt departure of John Skipper meant  Mark Shapiro (former Executive Vice President, Programming and Production at ESPN and current co-president at WME-IMG, which owns the UFC) wouldn’t be negotiating with someone that wasn’t a fan of his product.

During Skipper’s reign as president, ESPN showed little interest in a UFC deal. Skipper wasn’t a fan of the sport and didn’t believe it fit into ESPN’s schedule.

Watching Pitaro’s reactions that morning, Shapiro — for the first time — truly believed that a deal with ESPN could be possible.

In the end, new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro agreed to a $150 million TV rights deal with Shapiro. Shapiro then struck another $150 million deal with Disney. The second deal will allow ESPN+ to stream coverage of 15 UFC cards. Disney’s head of international and direct-to-consumer products, Kevin Mayer oversaw the second deal from the company’s headquarters in Burbank. That is an interesting tidbit according to Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz.

And the Mayer material here is notable, especially for its discussion of how certain key ESPN areas like ESPN+ and ad sales now report to him rather than to Pitaro. Given that Pitaro also came to ESPN from a senior role at Disney (he was previously chairman of consumer products and interactive media), there’s a case to be made that corporate parent Disney is now much more involved in the regular runnings of ESPN on several levels than they were during Skipper’s tenure.

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