Dana White Credits Cocaine Scandal For UFC’s Relationship With ESPN

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UFC President Dana White credits former ESPN President John Skipper’s cocaine dealer for striking a $1.5 billion rights deal with the network in 2019.

White does not believe ESPN would have made such a blockbuster offer had Skipper not stepped down amid a cocaine scandal.

“I’ll tell you a crazy story,” Dana White said during an interview with Grant Cardone this week.“You ever hear of John Skipper? John Skipper ran ESPN. Now, I think he runs DAZN. Runs ESPN, beloved, looks like the squarest dude on the planet. Older guy. Hates UFC, hates it. Hates UFC. Big soccer guy. For whatever reason, people like different things. And I’m not sh-ting on John Skipper. But this is a fact, this happened and this is a true story.”

The head of UFC then shared quite the story.

“John Skipper, beloved at ESPN, ESPN’s at the top of their game,” White continued. “These guys are killing it in revenue, they’re getting $5 per subscriber when cable was the biggest it’s ever been. So, our FOX deal is up and we’re probably not gonna do another deal with FOX. They’re selling off cable networks and re-structuring. So they’re not the same company when we signed with them. And John Skipper’s never, ever gonna take the UFC. So, we’re in a real tough place.”

Dana White explains why ESPN ended up with the UFC.


Skipper is perhaps best known for leading ESPN during the peak of its tensions with the NFL. The league would notoriously schedule lackluster matchups for “Monday Night Football” in response to the fractured relationship. The NFL felt ESPN, under Skipper, covered the league too negatively.

Plus, Skipper wasn’t much for violent sports, as White notes. (Though he oddly ran DAZN, best known for boxing, after his ESPN exit.) Skipper preferred soccer and the NBA, hence the network’s pivot to a basketball-first network under his watch.

But in 2018, ESPN replaced Skipper with Jimmy Pitaro, an MMA buff and White said that’s when everything changed.

“John Skipper’s cocaine dealer is gonna rat him out,” White continued. “So he has to tell Disney ‘My cocaine dealer is gonna go public’ or whatever, so he has to step down from ESPN, right at the time we’re trying to make a new TV deal. Who do they make president? Jimmy Pitaro, who ran Yahoo! Sports for years. I’ve known him a long time. He’s a great dude, and he loves the UFC. Now you got him, you got a guy named Kevin Mayer, who is really close to [Endeavor CEO] Ari [Emanuel], and we ended up doing the ESPN deal when our deal was up.”

Thus, the UFC signed an exclusive five-year contract with ESPN for $150 million a year.

ESPN’s partnership with UFC is one of the few bright spots for the network. UFC pay-per-views have created a necessity around the streaming service, ESPN+.

It takes a large niche fan base to pay monthly to stream live sports. And there is no fan base in sports more loyal than MMA fans.

So, had it not been for a cocaine scandal, ESPN would be without the UFC and likely out of the Super Bowl rotation, and stuck with an excruciatingly dull “MNF” slate.

Clay Travis reported on John Skipper’s legacy and suspicious “resignation” at the time:

Quite the run.

Ultimately, the UFC cashed out and has since grown in status. Given the importance of the UFC to Disney’s prioritized streaming strategery, White should demand a hefty increase come 2024.

And expect there to be a bevy of other streaming/broadcast suitors looking to capitalize on the growing UFC base. It’d behoove Amazon Prime, YouTube, AppleTV, and Turner/HBO Max to show a strong, multi-billion-dollar interest in the product.

No wonder Dana White is so thankful for John Skipper’s cocaine dealer.

Written by Bobby Burack

Bobby Burack covers media, politics, and sports at OutKick.

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