“We’re delighted to have signed this agreement with UFC. We’ve said BT Sport will offer a wide range of sports that appeal to different audiences and we know that UFC has a huge, committed fan-base in the UK and Ireland and we hope they will be excited about our plans to develop the coverage of the sport”. – Garry Cook.
Yesterday the UFC announced a three-year partnership deal in the UK with BT Sport to broadcast all live UFC events and specially designed original programming for UK and Irish MMA fans from August 1st of this year.
The UFC will join a growing list of sports associated and content accumulated by BT Sport, as the not-yet launched channel has already secured the rights to air Barclays Premier League football, the FA Cup, Aviva Premiership Rugby union and the WTA tour.
Garry Cook, Executive Vice President and Managing Director of UFC EMEA, who has been instrumental in brokering the deal, said that “this agreement is a landmark step in UFC’s development in the UK as it will increase our exposure to a much wider and more mainstream sporting audience.”
While this is hugely positive news for UK and Irish MMA fans, an unavoidable reaction towards the announcement of this deal has been one of disappointment and a sense of feeling underwhelmed. However, I stress that this feeling is not shared enough to be considered the opinion of the majority, yet not too minimal so that it could be easily brushed off as just the Brits indulging in one of their favourite pastimes, complaining.
The main source of agitation and anxiety appears to stem not from the increased exposure of MMA in the UK and potential for more events of course, but from the accessibility of the BT Sport channel. In the UK the broadcasting of sports is largely dominated by Sky Sports who hold the lion share of the Barclays Premier League football television rights, Formula 1, Tennis, NFL and really most other mainstream sports you could think of. As a result, most TV subscribers who have an interest in sport tend to side with Sky, funds permitting. Previously the UFC, along with other sports, was shown on the ESPN channel in the UK, which will now be placed under the BT Sport umbrella, at a pay-per-month subscription cost. When it became known that the UFC’s contract with ESPN in the UK was coming to an end this August, many UK and Irish MMA fans had hoped that a deal could be struck with Sky Sports, so as to avoid further payment in order to view their favourite Octagon stars. The fact that this is now not going to be the case, and that they will have to pay out supplementary subscription costs if they do not already have BT Vision (BT Sport’s TV provider), has left many a Brit and Irishman disgruntled.
The current lack of information provided by BT Sport in regards to how viewers can access its content via Virgin Media, the UK’s 2nd most popular subscription TV provider, has also caused concern for some. In its current state, Virgin Media, unlike Sky and BT Vision, provides ESPN as a free channel for its existing customers and BT Sport has yet to confirm whether or not their channel will be available on Virgin Media, with their current company line: “We will offer BT Sport on Virgin Media if it makes commercial sense to do so.” This, I believe, will not be too much of an issue going forward and can quite easily see BT Sport appearing on the Virgin Media channel list, much like ESPN does. However, if BT Sport is made available to Virgin Media customers, but at a cost, then UK and Irish based MMA fans have a right to feel aggrieved. But of course, at this stage people need to remember that the deal was only announced this morning, and that further details will be made available shortly in order to further clarify the viewing options and full intricacies of the UFC’s partnership with BT Sport as a whole.
Personally, I understand the frustrations of those shared above, however I am firmly in the majority that have welcomed this announcement and the potential benefits a deal of this nature could have on the development of UK MMA.
One of the most appealing facets of the deal for me was that BT Sport will not only air every UFC event live on its channel, but it has also been confirmed that BT Sport is committed to producing original MMA/UFC programming specifically designed for UK and Irish MMA fans. This will be the first time that this has occurred as part of a UK UFC television deal and will go a long way in satisfying viewers who are starved of MMA content by the mainstream British media. Creating original MMA programming rather than just re-packaging the material provided to the US audience can be seen as a real progressive step for coverage of MMA in the UK. This will act as breath of fresh air for those UK and Irish fans who would watch a live event then have to scour the internet for additional content and analysis from across the pond to further sate their MMA appetite.
Prior to announcing the partnership with BT Sport, UFC President Dana White mentioned that with the appropriate UK broadcaster, UK MMA fans could be looking forward “dates in London, Manchester, Dublin and several other places in the UK, (we would) do them every year, the same date every year, and with the right television deal we bring big fights over here.” This, if it came to fruition, is huge for UK MMA. For the last few years, the UK and Irish MMA fans have felt neglected and short-changed when it came to the frequency of events hosted on these isles and the quality of the cards when they were announced. If this partnership with BT Sport enables the UFC to host more events in the UK than in recent years and increase the class of combatants on show from top to bottom, then another MMA boom in Britain could quite easily transpire, only this time with a fully committed television partner in place to fully exploit any potential successes of the sport.