New ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro has inherited a tough job. ESPN is losing millions of cable subscribers a year as rights fees increase for sports broadcasts. As if that weren’t enough, the ESPN brand has been significantly damaged, if not irreparably damaged, by the the network’s embrace of far left wing politics to the exclusion of actual sports coverage. Ratings for original programming are plummeting and the most expensive new program offering in years, WokeCenter AM, aka Get Up, is down massively over the show it replaced, SportsCenter AM, despite costing tens of millions more. Hundreds of employees have been laid off, morale is low, and things are bound to get worse once the NBA playoffs leave ESPN this week and the network is faced with no sports programming of substantial value on air to lift ratings for all of June, July, and August.
Complicating things even more, far left wing sports commentators emboldened and promoted by ESPN’s cokehead leader, John Skipper, have left ESPN in a near disastrous spot just as the network launches ESPN+. WokeCenter 3.0 starring PC Bromani is set to launch this summer and if that show is anything like PC Bromani’s radio show, which is the most disastrous failure in the history of ESPN radio, then it will have to be canceled after costing the network tens of millions as well.
So how does Pitaro handle these challenges? He’s doing his best. Especially when you remember that these are messes that he didn’t create at all, he just inherited all of them.
I give Pitaro props for getting Jemele Hill and Michael Smith off the disastrous six pm SportsCenter. So far the public has responded in a positive way, sending ratings up for both March and April of this year over last year’s WokeCenter. In particular, ESPN managed the Jedi mind trick of slamming Hill and Smith while extolling the virtues of the new SportsCenter’s ratings without them. But that was a more cosmetic decision and was relatively inexpensive.
Now Pitaro’s made his first big programming bet — ponying up $300 million a year, $1.5 billion total, for the UFC cable rights package. Half of this package will air on ESPN+, ESPN’s new premium over the top subscription offering, and the other half will air on ESPN networks after Fox elected to pay big money for the WWE rather than re-up with the UFC.
Why did Fox bail on the UFC and go after the WWE so aggressively? Because the network believed the UFC’s programming costs had climbed too high and because UFC programming offered no shoulders. That is, UFC fans, if you examine the ratings, almost exclusively care about UFC programming. They don’t stick around for other sports programming, they just tune in for the UFC events.
Did Fox make the right decision?
Time will tell, but Fox is paying the WWE roughly what it would have paid for the UFC instead. Early poll results suggest most of you would have rather had the WWE on your network than the UFC.
If you ran a sports network would you rather have the WWE or UFC? (For purposes of this poll we are considering WWE to be a sport so stop with those comments).
— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) May 23, 2018
Regardless of which decision you would have made, Pitaro’s embrace of the UFC is particularly interesting given the conflict this creates with the overall Disney brand. The UFC is far more violent than any sports programming ESPN has ever had the exclusive rights to before. Indeed, there was long talk that Disney wouldn’t allow ESPN to partner with the UFC because the brand was so violent and outrageous. It’s hard to watch your average UFC fight promo and think, “This should be taking place at Disney World.” And it’s also hard to imagine, for instance, UFC weekend at the Magic Kingdom. “Come watch Mickey Mouse choke out Donald on a pile of his own blood!”
Perhaps ESPN’s rear naked choke hold on the UFC is a sign of Disney’s desperate grasp for relevance given the fact that ESPN may well not be able to afford Monday Night Football when that package comes up for renewal in a couple of years or maybe it represents a solid brand extension for Pitaro when it comes to convincing his bosses that the blood, gore, and excess of UFC theatrics is exactly what ESPN needs to combat its audience declines.
Either way it’s a definite bold gamble by Pitaro to ally ESPN with the UFC.
And you also have to wonder this, how will ESPN’s far left wing politics square with UFC fight promotions, which are frequently well outside the bounds of politically correct speech? Will all of ESPN’s talent line up to call Conor McGregor a racist when, or if, his fights take place on ESPN networks and he says the same things he’s said in the past? Will they rip Dana White for his excesses as well? Will ESPN start to talk about UFC on all their programming now that they’re partners? Will the audience respond better to ESPN integrating UFC coverage into mainstream sports coverage than Fox’s audience did?
Most importantly, can the UFC continue to build superstars? Ronda Rousey has moved on to the WWE and Conor McGregor appears to be on his last legs with the sport. Brock Lesnar, too. Are there new global superstars to rise up in their place or will the UFC struggle to command public attention? Fox chose the WWE over the UFC because its superstars don’t lose unexpectedly and cripple the next pay-per-view buy. ESPN chose the UFC.
And right now the UFC is a niche. It’s a profitable niche, but it’s not a mainstream sport like football and basketball, where ESPN has placed most of its programming bets so far. If the NHL wasn’t mainstream enough for ESPN to keep, will the UFC be?
In the meantime, the message here is clear, Fox bet on the WWE and ESPN bet on the UFC.
Time will tell which wager was the right one and which partner best fits and compliments its network.
But personally I can’t wait for Conor McGregor to guest star on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and put Peg Leg Pete to sleep.