The UFC couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off its new partnership with ESPN than with Fight Night: Cejudo vs. Dillashaw on January 19 from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The ageless Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone TKOed up-and-comer Alexander Hernandez (and then called out Conor McGregor) in the final bout of the preliminaries which aired on ESPN before the main card aired on ESPN+ 1 for the first time. Former NFL defensive lineman Greg Hardy’s UFC debut ended with a disqualification as he illegally kneed Allen Crowder in controversial fashion. Finally, the champion vs. champion main event between Henry Cejudo and T.J. Dillashaw surprisingly ended as quickly as it began; Cejudo earned the TKO victory in just 32 seconds.
“It was a bit surreal for a lot of the team members to see the four letters (of ESPN) sitting next to our three letters on air for the first time,” said Craig Borsari, UFC executive vice president of operations and production. “It was a moment the entire company was incredibly proud of. It definitely gave us a shot of adrenaline to keep moving, keep building and got us excited for the next five years.”
The UFC and Disney’s Direct-To-Consumer and International segment, in conjunction with ESPN, reached an exclusive five-year media rights agreement in May 2018 for live UFC content on ESPN+ and ESPN television, social and digital platforms. The UFC had been aired on FOX and FOX Sports since 2011.
According to ESPN, the 13-bout card was a record-setting night for its OTT product, ESPN+, resulting in 568,000 new subscribers, including more than 525,000 on Saturday alone. Not only were viewers subscribing to the service, but they made sure to watch the preliminaries on cable as well. Airing on ESPN (English) and ESPN Deportes (Spanish) from 8:15-10 p.m., the telecast averaged a 1.4-metered market rating, making it the highest-rated UFC Fight Night Prelims on cable since 2013. There were more than 1.8 million unique visitors to MMA-related digital content across all ESPN platforms the day of the event as well.
“It was really great not only to see the success we saw in the back end with the numbers and metrics, but also to see the real teamwork from both sides come to fruition,” Borsari said. “We couldn’t have been happier with the way things kicked off.”
Borsari said he and his team had a two-hour meeting with ESPN the week following the event to discuss what worked and what didn’t. He said there was a long laundry list, but he wasn’t surprised since it was the first broadcast of the new partnership.
The two will have to get in a groove quickly with a busy schedule over the next two-plus weeks, each event with its own broadcast scenario. Fight Night: Assuncao vs. Moraes 2 on February 2 will entirely be broadcast on ESPN+, the prelims of UFC 234 on February 9 will be on ESPN with the main card on pay-per-view, and Fight Night: Ngannou vs. Velasquez on February 17 will be broadcast on ESPN.
“As we knock scenarios off for the first time, there’s so much to learn and different advantages to each,” Borsari said. “We haven’t done that with a network platform for a while. We really are looking to make sure our messaging from a marketing standpoint is customized for the platform or platforms we’re on each night.
“The focus now really is to just build as we get each event under our belt—there’s more to learn and more to improve on across every department.”
NOTE: First appeared on Forbes